Oregon farmer wins zoning dispute

John Gilmour, owner of a straw-compressing facility near Albany, Ore., has won a legal dispute over whether his plant should be allowed outright on land zoned for farming. Several neighbors wanted him to obtain a conditional use permit because they worry about traffic impacts.

Straw-compressing facilities can be built on Oregon farmland without a county conditional use permit, according to the Oregon Court of Appeals.

The appellate court has rejected arguments that compressing bales of straw for easier shipment to overseas markets is a form of “processing” that’s disallowed within farm zones without a permit.

The ruling upholds a finding by Oregon’s Land Use Board of Appeals, or LUBA, that straw-compressing is crop “preparation” that’s allowed outright on farmland.

“The record reflects that the straw is unchanged in substance from when it is first baled in the field to when it is packaged for resale,” the appellate court said in the July 20 ruling.

The case is seen as significant for Oregon land use law because it could have changed allowable farm activities on a county-by-county basis.

Farmer John Gilmour of Albany, Ore., said that time restrictions imposed on his straw-compressing facility by Linn County were hurting its competitiveness, while some neighbors complained of traffic hazards and noise.

The ruling ensures uniformity across Oregon in the definition of “farm use,” said Alan Sorem, attorney for Gilmour.

If each county were to have its own interpretation of farm use, with different restrictions on operations, it would be destabilizing for agriculture, he said.

“It’s a great decision in that it provides stability for farmers,” Sorem said.

Suzi Maresh, a neighbor opposed to the facility, said that straw-compressing is a great business but should be situated in an area where trucks don’t cause road hazards.

“This is an entirely inappropriate development for this location in Linn County,” Maresh said.

The Oregon Court of Appeals decision is disappointing because it doesn’t resolve the traffic problem and could allow it to grow worse if Gilmour expands, she said.

Critics of the facility argued for a reversal of the LUBA opinion, claiming the board’s analysis of “processing” was incomplete and should have followed Linn County’s interpretation, which held that straw compressing was a “commercial activity in conjunction with farm use” and required a permit.

The Oregon Court of Appeals has disagreed with this view, ruling that LUBA is not required to defer to the county’s legal reasoning.

Critics claimed facility compresses up to 25,000 tons of straw collected from other farms, compared to 5,000 tons grown by Gilmour, and it operates year-round, which disqualifies it as a “farm use.”

Gilmour countered that the facility may accept outside straw because it’s also grown on property zoned exclusively for farm use.

Compressing is simply a “preparation” of the crop for shipping, as it doesn’t fundamentally change the character of the straw — unlike turning berries into jam, he said.

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