Aggregate operations threaten farmland, opponents say
By MITCH LIES
DAYTON, Ore. -- A proposal to put an aggregate mine on 224 acres of prime farmland on Grand Island near Dayton is raising the ire of area farmers and shining light on what some claim is outdated state policy.
Farmers say that viewed narrowly, the Baker Rock Resources proposal takes 5 percent of the island's farmland out of farm production.
Viewed in the bigger picture, they say, coming on top of plans for two other gravel mines, the proposal threatens to uproot farming on the island.
"Our biggest concern at this point is what will stop this trend," said Katie Kulla, who operates an organic farm on the island. "At what point do we say the cumulative impact is a significant impact for farmers?"
If the Baker Rock application is approved, Kulla said, more than one-eighth of the 4,400-acre island will be approved for gravel mining. The result, she said, could be disastrous for the 40 or so farms on the island, costing access to farmland, clogging the island's one narrow road, potentially lowering the island's ground water table and eroding the island's peaceful nature.
"It's nice out here, and we'd like to keep it that way," Kulla said.
Baker Rock Resources proposes to mine 175 acres of the 224-acre site in 3- to 9-acre cells over 30 years. Under the plan, acreage not being mined will continue to be farmed during the life of the project.
Baker Rock purchased the site from an area farmer a few years ago. The site currently is being farmed under lease arrangements.
The company proposes to convert the site to public-recreation uses -- essentially a lake -- after the project.
The Beaverton, Ore.-based aggregate company said in its proposal it "is committed to operating the site in a manner that is compatible with ... the livability and appropriate development and use of nearby property."
Todd Baker, president of the company, said he believes an aggregate mine can be a good neighbor to farms.
"I don't want to have any impact on them, and if I do have an impact, I want to correct it," he said.
Baker said the company has agreed to monitor wells to determine if the operation is lowering groundwater levels, and to alter the operation if it does.
"I gave them our card and said if you have any issues, you call me 24-7 and we'll respond," Baker said.
The Yamhill County Planning Commission in July recommended the county's board of commissioners deny the Baker Rock application, a recommendation inconsistent with county planners, who recommended the board approve the application.
Ultimately, the Yamhill County Board of Commissioners will decide the fate of the application.
Commissioners in recent years have rezoned two sites on the island for gravel mining: One comprising 17 acres, the other, rezoned in 2004, included 245 acres. To date, no mining has taken place on the larger site.
The commission is scheduled to take up the Baker Rock proposal at its Sept. 29 meeting at the Yamhill County Courthouse in McMinnville.
Under Oregon law, commissioners can approve the application if they find it meets certain criteria, including its economic significance and its compatibility with surrounding uses.
Bruce Chapin, a Willamette Valley farmer and chairman of the Oregon Farm Bureau's aggregate committee, said Oregon's mining law falls short of protecting the valley's farmland and needs to be updated. When it was established in the 1970s, he said, the aggregate industry was not considered a threat to agriculture.
Today, with technological advancements, aggregate companies can access rock in areas that were previously not economically feasible due to depth and soil factors. Gravel companies have long been barred from riverbeds -- a common source of rock prior to the 1970s.
Chapin said, outside urban sprawl, the aggregate industry is the biggest threat to farmland in the valley, responsible for taking out of production between 200 and 400 acres a year.
Chapin, who farms just across the river from Grand Island in the Mission Bottom area north of Salem, said he is not opposed to gravel mining.
"We need rock," Chapin said. "I'm not for stopping mining rock."
But Chapin believes aggregate companies can find more appropriate sites to mine.
"The question is do we have a process in place that directs them to a site that would be the best benefit to society in the long run. And the answer is no," he said. "We aren't asking that question."
Ron Schindler, who was raised on the island and farms adjacent to the Baker Rock site, is worried the gravel pit will lower his property value, disrupt his farm operation and take valuable farmland out of production.
"This is perfect soil," he said. "You couldn't ask for any better.
"It should stay in farming. You can't eat that gravel," he said.
"When that land starts being mined, those farmers that currently are farming it are going to be displaced," he said. "They are either going to have to reduce the size of their operation, or they have to go out and compete against somebody else to pick up land elsewhere.
"In the end," Chapin said, "somebody's operation is going to shrink."