Rails-to-Trails fence

A swath of vegetation was cleared from a rail corridor owned by Yamhill County, Ore., that farmer Bryan Schmidt said damaged a fence and allowed his cattle to escape. Schmidt attached two strands of wire across the opening as a temporary repair.

Though his cattle are safely back where they belong, Oregon farmer Bryan Schmidt is still disturbed by the reason for their escape.

Schmidt said he rounded up six Angus cows that were “traipsing around the countryside” on Oct. 16 after a contractor hired by Yamhill County tore through his fence the previous day while clearing vegetation.

The incident is emblematic of a broader disrespect shown by county officials to Schmidt and other opponents of a “rails-to-trails” project touted by the local government, he said.

“The attitude is: ‘We don’t care, Mr. Schmidt. You’re a fly, get out of our face,’” he said.

The contractor had been clearing brush along the corridor of the county-owned railroad easement that’s proposed for conversion into the Yamhelas Westsider recreational trail, said Christian Boenisch, Yamhill County counsel.

“We were told they didn’t see or deliberately remove any fencing,” Boenisch said.

It’s possible the fence was difficult to see for the contractor due to the thickness of the vegetation, he said.

The brush was removed to provide access for specialists who will conduct “geotechnical work” on the trail and bridges along the route, he said.

“It’s not bridge construction. We’re still in the design and engineering phase,” Boenisch said.

Schmidt initially said he felt “bullied” but allowed that the fence may have been damaged due to “ignorant or negligent” activity.

The county has long been aware of his cattle pasture’s proximity to the railroad easement, which has been extensively surveyed over the past year, Schmidt said. The cows were even featured in a county-produced promotional video about the trail several years ago.

“If there’s cows there, how do they think they stay in?” he said.

Apart from his cattle’s brief adventure, Schmidt said he’s troubled by the implications of the county’s “excavation” work, which shows they are moving ahead with the trail project.

Oregon’s Land Use Board of Appeals recently ruled that Yamhill County had insufficiently studied the potential “farm impacts” of the trail, such as forcing changes to pesticide spray regimes and exposing fields to trespass and contamination.

Due to that decision, the county must reconsider the project.

However, LUBA separately ruled that Yamhill County’s contract with an engineering firm to design three bridges along the trail isn’t a land use decision that must be evaluated for potential effects on agriculture.

“Petitioners do not identify any actual, qualitatively or quantitatively significant impacts on present or future land uses that are attributable to the agreement itself,” LUBA said, referring to Schmidt and another landowner who challenged the contract.

Schmidt said he’s concerned the county is removing a broad swath of vegetation to provide access for heavy machinery needed for bridge-building.

“They weren’t just keeping to the contour of the creek. They cleared quite a lot on both sides,” he said.

Once the project is far enough along, that will provide the county with an argument against abandoning it due to the amount of money already invested, Schmidt said.

The engineering work will cost more than $500,000, which is being paid from a $1.2 million grant from the Oregon Department of Transportation.

The county also paid $1.4 million for a quit claim deed to the 12.5 mile rail corridor, though it initially intends to only convert less than three miles into a trail between the towns of Carlton and Yamhill.

“Our argument is these guys are prepping it, so there’s pressure,” Schmidt said. “They can go to the public and say, ‘Look what these farmers did.’”

I've been working at Capital Press since 2006 and I primarily cover legislative, regulatory and legal issues.

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