Washington County has been considering ways to expand revenue for agricultural operations in the county, and a new agri-tourism resolution may be about to bear HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Robert Bailey, who serves on the board of directors of Save Helvetia, said the county missed some potential problems, including the potential for abuse of alcohol and drugs, in the early stages of its agri-tourism review process.

In 2011, the Oregon Legislature approved Senate Bill 960, which was designed to create opportunities for residents of exclusive farm zones. Under the bill, landowners would be allowed to have specified “agri-tourism and other commercial events ... that are related to and supportive of agriculture.”

“When the Legislature passed this bill, it was left up to all county jurisdictions to implement some of it or all of it,” explained Michelle Pimentel, senior program educator for Washington County’s Department of Land Use & Transportation.

Washington County Chairman Andy Duyck said he was optimistic an ordinance on agri-tourism would be a positive step for the county.

“There are multiple benefits, not just for ag, but it certainly increases options people have to make revenue,” Duyck said. “It’s a good product development, and it’s one more tool to market Washington County.”

Some of the uses that could be permitted under a new ordinance include school tours, garden and nursery tours, craft classes, harvest festivals, pony rides, pumpkin patch events, rodeos, concerts, lavender festivals, corporate picnics, conferences or retreats, sporting events, hunting and fishing activities and petting zoos.

Duyck said he is “very open” to the concept, and believes the public is as well.

“We’ve identified some of the major problems and concerns,” Duyck said. “The obvious ones are traffic, noise, and impacts with existing agriculture operations. We all have concerns on the impacts, but things like that can be dealt with.”

As an example, Duyck said the county probably would not allow parking along roadways.

“You’d have to have parking on your own property,” he said.

Duyck pointed out that the main priority is to ensure agriculture has the right to operate without being constrained.

“Commercial ag trumps any agri-tourism,” Duyck said. “The biggest hurdle is that some believe ag lands are for crop production, but the land can serve many purposes. For ag, hiking, entertainment — I don’t see those as mutually exclusive.”

Pimentel said the commissioners are still relatively early in the process of tailoring an ordinance for Washington County, and she noted there will be public hearings on the topic. A vote is expected sometime this summer.

Public comments received so far have covered a range of opinions on opening up agricultural lands to other activities.

“It’s been a mixed bag so far,” Pimentel said. “We’ve gotten a good response; there has been a healthy representation of interests and issues. There are a lot of benefits with expanding uses of the land, but at the same time we need to strike a balance for those who live there — perhaps conditions around the events as to noise, hours, traffic.

“We need to make sure if we decide to move forward that it’s done correctly with as much feedback as possible.”

Commissioners float a draft

Last week, a draft of the proposed program was released by the Board of Commissioners for review and comment until March 21. After considering the public comments, the commissioners are expected to finalize a draft ordinance for consideration in mid-April.

Some neighboring counties have already acted on adopting agri-tourism legislation. In nearby Marion County, for example, the county commissioners passed an agri-tourism resolution in January 2013. In part, the resolution declared: “Agriculture and commercial activities in conjunction with farm use hold a high priority in economic development for Marion County.”

Marion County’s move regarding agri-tourism has been perceived as positive all around, according to Marion County Commissioner Patti Milne.

“That resolution has resulted in much greater knowledge and awareness about the importance of farming and ag-related businesses in Marion County,” said Milne. “It also means more people understand we at Marion County support farming and ag-related businesses and that we will stand behind them and look for ways to help grow this part of our economic environment.”

What works in Marion County might not necessarily be good for Washington County however, and the idea has raised some serious concerns in the local community.

Robert Bailey, who serves on the board of directors of Save Helvetia — a local advocacy organization that works to protect Helvetia’s farms, forests and cultural heritage — said the county missed some potential problems.

“We thought they missed the issues of alcohol and drugs at agri-tourism events, and the impacts to rural residents and roads,” Bailey said. “They also had some grandfathering of smaller parcels with histories of events, which concerns us. We also are concerned about liability for attendees, the county and others.”

Possible negative impacts

Last month, Save Helvetia provided a detailed “position paper” to the county’s Department of Land Use & Transportation, warning of possible negative impacts involved with expanding the allowed uses of rural land. The organization also offered several recommendations designed to mitigate any negative impacts if the county does move forward.

In the 10-page paper, representatives of Save Helvetia noted that some area residents have been trying to build “event parks and wedding mills” and cautioned that these operations are substantially business plans with minimal ties to active agricultural operations.

“We have experienced farm land being taken out of production, compacted and paved, with permanent structures built,” read an excerpt from the group’s report. “We have observed some event venues bringing substantial negative impacts to the surrounding rural communities: traffic, noise, dust, importation of noxious weeds, traffic obstacles to farm equipment, obstacles to emergency vehicle access, threats of fire, trespassing onto private lands, alcohol use at events with impaired driving, and health and safety dangers at the venue awaiting an unwilling public.”

Further, “land speculators might purchase farm land as ‘venue land’ and structure their event,” the report noted.

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