Ramsey McPhillips

Ramsey McPhillips, a farmer near McMinnville, Ore., discusses the impacts of a nearby landfill on his property. A landmark ruling in a lawsuit over the landfill’s expansion was recently issued by the Oregon Supreme Court.

Negative impacts from non-farm developments can’t be offset by making payments to surrounding farmers, according to the Oregon Supreme Court.

The state’s highest court has also concluded that such developments can’t significantly change agricultural practices or costs for individual growers in “exclusive farm use” zones.

A longstanding legal battle over a planned landfill expansion in Yamhill County has led to the landmark ruling, which requires such developments to be analyzed “practice by practice and farm by farm.”

The decision has determined that it’s not enough for such developments to avoid reducing the “overall supply of agricultural land” — they must also refrain from disrupting “particular farms and farming practices.”

In 2017, the Oregon Court of Appeals found that the Riverbend Landfill’s expansion is permissible under state land use law because it doesn’t “decrease the supply of agricultural land, the profitability of the farm or the provision of food.”

The Court of Appeals also held that Yamhill County’s “conditions of approval” for the landfill expansion — such as payments for litter cleanup and damaged fruit crops — were sufficient to prevent significant changes to agriculture.

The Oregon Supreme Court has now reversed that opinion and adopted an interpretation of land use law supported by local opponents of the landfill, as well as the Oregon Farm Bureau and the 1,000 Friends of Oregon conservation group.

If a non-farm development results in the “inability of the farmer to engage in an accepted farming practice,” simply paying him for the adverse effect “contravenes the legislature’s long-term policy of preserving agricultural land,” the state’s highest court said.

The ruling upholds Oregon’s land use goal of preserving large blocks of farmland that are necessary for the healthy functioning of the agricultural economy, said Ramsey McPhillips, an adjacent farmer who opposes the landfill expansion.

“This isn’t just about McPhillips Farm, it’s about all the farmland in Oregon being encroached on by non-farm entities who could just pay off their trespass,” he said.

Under the Oregon Supreme Court’s ruling, opponents can seek to block non-farm developments for causing significant impacts to the “individual farmer,” said Meriel Darzen, rural lands attorney for 1,000 Friends of Oregon.

“They don’t have to show there will be a decrease in the land supply,” she said.

This test is employed by county governments whenever they encounter conditional use permit applications for non-farm developments in “exclusive farm use zones,” Darzen said.

“The way the standard is applied is really important. It’s how farmers can protect their farm uses from impact,” she said. “The standard is applied more often than almost anything in land use.”

The Oregon Supreme Court’s decision is “very instructive” and sets a “high bar” for non-farm development, re-emphasizing the farmland preservation policies enacted by Oregon lawmakers, said Tim Bernasek, an attorney who represented the Oregon Farm Bureau in the case.

“They have to apply it on a farm-by-farm basis,” he said. “It needs to be a much more specific analysis regarding the concerns that are raised.”

Waste Management, the owner of the Riverbend Landfill, is reviewing the Oregon Supreme Court’s ruling, said Jackie Lang, the company’s senior area manager for public affairs and communications.

The expansion plan was shaped by public input over eight years, during which the project was “thoroughly vetted and scrutinized,” Lang said in an email.

“The final plan was approved by Yamhill County after an open and transparent process that included more than 25 public meetings,” she said. “Waste Management has approached this process with a steady commitment to being a strong local employer and community partner.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling doesn’t block the expansion from moving forward but rather remands the decision to the state’s Land Use Board of Appeals, which reviews such conditional use permit decisions.

McPhillips said he’s optimistic the new composition of Yamhill County’s board of commissioners will yield a different result from past approvals.

“When it comes back to the county, there’s a farmer on the commission who understands the importance of preserving large sections of farmland,” he said.

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

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