Legislation takes on farmland preservation and the commercial needs of the producer
By MITCH LIES
SALEM -- For more than 20 years, Oregon's wine industry flourished under the ambiguity of winery provisions in Oregon land use law.
The law allowed some commercial activity on farmland in conjunction with the sale and promotion of wine. But from there, provisions in the 1989 law grew vague.
As wineries tested the law's boundaries -- hosting high-profile concerts, holiday celebrations and renting out facilities for weddings -- the probabilities of conflicts with neighboring farm operations increased.
The issue came to a head in recent years when Marion and Yamhill county planners started fielding farmer complaints that winery activities were interrupting their ability to work crops.
"It boiled down to the wineries were holding events not clearly authorized by statute," said Sterling Anderson, Marion County planner.
Suddenly the ambiguity in Oregon land use laws created a roadblock.
"In some ways ambiguity can be a friend, but it can also be our foe," said winemaker Sam Tannahill, president of the Oregon Wine Board.
Wine industry leaders last year set out to define in statute allowable activities on Oregon farmland. The result of their collaboration is House Bill 3280.
At the same time, Associated Oregon Counties, the Oregon Farm Bureau and other groups worked to develop their own bill defining allowable activities. Their bill, Senate Bill 960, has cleared both chambers and is headed to Gov. John Kitzhaber for signature.
HB3280 as of press deadline is mired in conference committee after the House failed to concur with Senate amendments.
Both bills limit allowable activities to commercial events associated with the primary function of the farm.
SB960 caps the number of allowable events a winery can conduct each year at six, unless a winery obtains the equivalent of a conditional use permit.
HB3280, on the other hand, allows an unlimited number of events, provided the events are designed to market the winery's product and meet certain size and time restrictions.
Critics have said HB3280 provides wineries with special privileges and fails to address compatibility issue with surrounding farm uses.
Winery leaders deflect the criticism, noting that wineries are unique and require unique provisions.
"We have a unique set of needs in terms of our businesses, and a unique set of requirements," said Jim Bernau, president of Willamette Valley Vineyards. "It's not like growing potatoes or corn and then trying to figure out how to sell that to the customer."
"A grass-seed farmer's customer hardly ever wants to come and sample the grass seed with the grass-seed farmer," said Tim Ramey of Zenith Vineyard.
Tannahill, of Rex Hill Vineyards, said that in crafting HB3280 the industry sought to give wineries the opportunity to succeed while preserving Oregon farmland for farming.
"We're supportive of legislation that is balanced, allows the wine industry to grow and prosper, and at the same time preserves farmland for farming," Tannahill said.
"I think everybody in some ways likes to work within clear boundaries, and that is something that we wanted to see," Tannahill said.
Mark Bjornson of Bjornson Vineyard in Salem, said in HB3280 the industry is trying to do little more than keep farmland in farming.
Operating a tasting room, for example, Bjornson said, is critical to a winery's ability to sustain its farm operation.
"The industry is not opposed to another farmer who processes on site their agricultural products and sells that to the public," he said.