Faced with a decision to either uphold or reject the planning commission's approval of a marijuana and hemp processing facility on Chehalem Mountain, the Yamhill County Board of Commissioners voted 3-0 to uphold that decision at its meeting on Thursday.
The facility – owned and managed by OreTex Farms LLC among other entities – drew ire from neighbors, who argued it was poorly planned, unsafe and inconvenient to those living on or near the mountain. Laura Cochran, who lives with her intellectually disabled son at the property closest to the facility, was one of two appellants in the case who sought to overturn the planning commission's decision. The other was Jill Anderson.
County staff began the meeting by recommending approval of the site to the board with nearly 20 conditions of approval – some of them adjusting the facility's plans to better serve the people who live in the immediate area. After a week of digesting hours of written and spoken testimony – and listening to what staff recommended – commissioners deliberated and voiced their opinions on the issue.
Commissioner Rick Olson expressed significant concerns with the land use and acknowledged that the nature of marijuana law and agricultural law in Oregon does not allow the commissioners the power to outright deny an application such as this one. He and others on the board and its staff argued that changes at the Legislature – or a successful appeal by Cochran or Anderson at the Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA) – were the only feasible routes for a processing facility that is currently complying with state law to be forced to move elsewhere.
Vice-chairperson of the commission Mary Starrett sympathized with the appellants and expressed her concerns as well, but ultimately reached the same conclusion as Olson and board chairman Casey Kulla, who said he believed the board would not be exercising its duties were it to deny this application based on current law.
"I say this with great trepidation because I do get what it would be like to live next door to this," Starrett said. "I hope that these conditions and OLCC oversight and county and state regulations would really put this process and this use under such a microscope that if there was anything that would be in any way threatening to the surrounding property owners that they would get dinged for that. So it is with reluctance that I uphold the planning commission's approval."
Kulla weighed in before the final vote was taken by the commission, providing his own perspective as a farmer and acknowledging the arguments both sides made throughout a lengthy process. Thursday's hearing was the follow-up to a more than five-hour marathon session a week before, during which myriad opponents of the facility made their voices heard.
"It does seem like this is an inappropriate location to farm," Kulla said. "I chose a farm in the lowlands for a reason. But I'm not going to be the one to say that you're wrong to farm something there …
"I really appreciate everybody's thoughts. I want you to know that I take them very seriously and actually like Commissioner Starrett, I've had to change how I see it as I learned more because it's been a learning process for me."
With that, the commissioners voted unanimously to uphold the planning commission's approval of the facility, rejecting the appellants while attempting to embrace their line of thinking. At this point, it appears the laws regarding marijuana processing are insufficiently clear and Kulla acknowledged that while adding he's been in touch with state legislators about the issue.
The appellants' next steps are unclear. Cochran and her cohorts fought this facility from the start and she still contends that her son Sean – who has autism and is noise sensitive – will be negatively impacted in the future by the sounds, smells and activities of what she characterized as an "industrial facility."
While the facility does meet the definition of agricultural by its zoning and by the company's compliance with state law, Cochran said she remains disappointed with the decision. She won't appeal to LUBA, but she said she suspects her fellow appellant Anderson or others in the neighborhood might.
"I certainly support any LUBA efforts, but I personally will be pursuing other paths forward to keep my son safe and protect him as the activities next door ramp up to capacity," Cochran said. "Sean is not the only victim. This was an extremely disappointing decision from Yamhill County BOC that impairs the health and safety of so many affected neighbors."
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