Land use — Riverbend and Waste Managements zone change request may center on arcane legal considerations

Yamhill County commissioners have continued until next month their hearing of a request by Riverbend Landfill to rezone part of its property off Highway 18 near McMinnville in preparation for future expansion plans.

The expansion itself — which would increase the landfill’s size by 37 acres — must be decided in a different public hearing process that can begin only if the zone change is approved. The zone change would allow Riverbend’s owners, Waste Management Inc., to move forward with the expansion, but it wouldn’t guarantee it.

Nevertheless, much of the testimony that landfill opponents entered during a hearing before commissioners about the zone change last week centered on or alluded to the expansion plans.

Led by primary opponent Waste Not of Yamhill County/Stop the Dump Coalition, critics — who included everyone from neighbors of the landfill and private citizens to representatives of some of the region’s largest agricultural and trade organizations — made it clear that they do not want to see Riverbend grow any larger or continue operating beyond 2016 (the approximate date by which it will reach capacity if its zone change or expansion plans are denied).

“It is not consistent with the surrounding area,” Thomas Gary, speaking on behalf of the Willamette Valley Wineries Association (which counts more than 130 of its members in Yamhill County), said emphatically during his testimony before the board. “It is not. There are farms around it. This is a landfill. That is not consistent.”

Gary, like a number of other opponents, appealed to the county’s long and lucrative tradition of agriculture and, more recently, wine country tourism, arguing that the landfill’s continued operations endanger both industries.

“Why is there a landfill in the heart of your industry?” Gary said he has been asked by attendees at the International Pinot Noir Celebration at Linfield College. “There is no landfill in Napa, or Sonoma … We are among the greatest wine industries in the world, and there’s a landfill in our community.”

But supporters of the WM property — who wore green stickers that said “Yes for Yamhill County” in contrast to opponents’ red (“Stop the dump”) — were equally numerous, diverse and emphatic about their position: that the landfill is an asset to the region and the local community.

With the exception of agriculture and closely related industries, Riverbend appeared to have the clear advantage in support from the business community — with small businesses, large corporations and trade associations like the Newberg Downtown Coalition and the McMinnville Area Chamber of Commerce all agreeing that the low disposal rates offered by the landfill are vitally important to their continued success.

“It’s key to our business,” said David Walsh, pulp and power manager of SP Fiber Technologies’ paper mill in Newberg — one of the county’s largest employers. “If we lose it, I’m not sure we can stay in business.”

In the end, the commissioners’ decision is likely to hinge on the legal considerations of the requested zone change as expressed in Oregon statutes. Attorneys representing both sides at the Dec. 12 hearing attempted to argue the issue could be boiled down to a simple matter of law, but — not surprisingly — their interpretation of what the law does or does not allow was markedly different.

“This proposal is asking you to designate as farm land an area that is already under several hundred (million) tons of garbage,” said Bill Weismann, representing Stop the Dump. He went on to add, “It’s pretty clear from case law that you can’t zone land like this for farm use.”

But Tommy Brooks, legal counsel for WM, countered that a landfill is an explicitly permitted use within the exclusive farm use (EFU) zone that Riverbend is seeking. He said the law does not require land to be “agricultural” in order to be zoned EFU.

“Counties can designate any land as EFU,” he said.

After more than four hours of testimony, commissioners Kathy George and Allen Springer (Mary Stern had earlier recused herself due to a conflict of interest) voted to continue the hearing at the point of staff recommendation. The board agreed to leave the record open for the next several weeks for further written testimony and rebuttals. The hearing is scheduled to be reopened at 10 a.m. Jan. 16 at the Yamhill County courthouse.

At a separate hearing before the planning commission on the matter earlier this month, county Planning Director Mike Brandt had recommended denying Riverbend’s application, and the board ultimately followed his lead by a 4-3 vote. That decision was passed on to the Board of Commissioners in the current proceedings in the form of a nonbinding recommendation.

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