Proposed Oregon bike trail unnerves farmers

Farmer Scott Bernards speaks about why he’s nervous about the potential conversion of an abandoned railroad into a hiking and biking trail in Oregon’s Yamhill County in this file photo.

Farmers opposed to a “rail to trail” project in Oregon’s Yamhill County cited trash, theft and trespass as potential hazards that warrant halting the proposal.

Restrictions on pesticide spraying also emerged as a foremost concern during a March 7 county hearing on whether the project would impermissibly cause significant impacts to agriculture.

“I’ve never seen so many farmers in one place for so long, so this must be a real problem,” said Greg McCarthy of Gaston during the 6-hour hearing in McMinnville.

In 2017, Yamhill County paid $1.4 million for the “quit claim” deed to a 12.5-mile stretch of rail corridor that it’s intending to turn into the Yamhelas-Westsider trail for walkers and cyclists.

Last year, the county’s board of commissioners approved immediately developing nearly three miles of the trail between the towns of Yamhill and Carlton, but Oregon’s Land Use Board of Appeals ordered the decision to be reconsidered under a “quasi-judicial” proceeding.

Under Oregon law, such development in an “exclusive farm use” zone cannot cause significant changes to farming practices or their costs.

The recent hearing in McMinnville was meant to comply with LUBA’s remand order by collecting additional evidence and testimony on possible agricultural impacts.

“What I want to ask you to do is avoid a train wreck,” said Wendie Kellington, an attorney for farmers objecting to the project.

A recent Oregon Supreme Court ruling is “beautiful in its simplicity” because it doesn’t allow significant impacts to individual farms, even if the growers are paid for those impacts, she said.

Because the proposed trail would increase restrictions on spraying, heighten the danger of fire, restrict access to fields and imperil food safety, the project fails to meet the Oregon Supreme Court’s test, Kellington said.

“As a matter of law, you have to deny it based on the information in the record,” she said. “You can’t meet the farm impacts standard, is the truth.”

Under federal “agricultural exclusion zone” rules implemented by Oregon regulators, certain pesticides can’t be sprayed within 150 feet of people.

If an applicator observes people on a road or path within 150 feet, he’s required to suspend spraying, evaluate the situation and resume only if it’s clear people are no longer within that zone, said Dale Mitchell, manager of the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s pesticide program.

A pesticide critic could “sit there and watch” and effectively stop a spray operation along the Yamhelas-Westsider trail, which will dissuade farmers from applying pesticides within 150 feet of the corridor, said Kellington.

Label regulations for individual pesticides also instruct against spraying near parks, further impeding farmers who fear civil and criminal penalties, she said.

“Farmers aren’t going to be willing to take that gamble,” said Sarah Mitchell, a fellow attorney working for trail opponents.

Litter along the trail will attract rodents, which along with waste from humans and pets will create risks of food-borne illness, said Lee Schrepel, executive vice president of the Fruithill food processing company in Yamhill, Ore.

Notices about trespass aren’t effective against people and animals that ignore them, he said. “Signs only warn, they don’t stop.”

Scott Bernards of Carlton said he’s already had problems with trespassers even without official public access to the trail, including a teenage girl with a severe allergic reaction to pollen and an injured horse that had to be euthanized.

“This trail is absolutely going to affect how we do business,” he said.

Much of the testimony offered during the hearing didn’t pertain to the three-mile portion whose development was approved by the ordinance in question, said Todd Sadlo, the county’s attorney.

Developing the initial three miles of trail would show the “horror stories” feared by opponents are “overblown” and that the project will be an asset to the community, Sadlo said.

Regarding the “farm impacts” legal standard, Sadlo said he can’t imagine that Oregon lawmakers would intend to stop a transportation project within an existing transportation corridor.

“A lot of this is no different from a road,” he said.

The sprayer’s legal obligations are the same whether he’s applying pesticides near a state highway, a gravel road or a trail, Sadlo said.

“There are ways to do this that do not involve abandoning farm uses along 150 feet of a trail,” he said.

Steve Wick, a farmer from Gaston who supports the trail, said it’s already prohibited for pesticides to drift onto a neighbor’s field.

“It’s my responsibility to keep my sprays off their property,” he said.

The trail would help people avoid traffic hazards along Highway 47, he said. “For a simple inconvenience, it’s a small price to pay for the safety of the people of the community.”

Problems with vandalism and crime are less likely to occur in rural Yamhill County, while fencing along the trail would mitigate trespassing and associated food safety issues, said Sadlo.

“That’s what farmers would do, and that’s what we’re prepared to do,” he said.

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

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