Stafford's plan to preserve its agricultural future
Editor's note: This is the first installment in a series about the future of the Stafford area.
Rick Cook sometimes quips to fellow Stafford resident Richard Fiala that the community "went to hell" when Fiala's family laid down its roots.
In 1900, after his gig hauling timber to produce the charcoal used at the Oregon Iron and Steel Company furnace in Lake Oswego fell through when the location closed, Cook's great grandfather bought 130 acres of land in Stafford. Fiala's grandparents were "late to the game" — tending to a plot of land off Johnson Road beginning in 1906.
Well over a century later, Cook grows wine grapes while Fiala Farms sells fresh fruit and vegetables at the same locations their ancestors settled on.
Though land speculation, farmers aging out and surrounding development may have altered the agricultural enclave from the early 1900s, Cook, Fiala and other residents hope Stafford farmland will be preserved and even enhanced 100 years from now.
Farmland preservation is not unique. But Fiala and Cook's preferred method for doing so — conservation easements that limit the use of the land to agriculture regardless of the property's ownership or zoning — is, at least on Oregon land slated for urban growth.
"What the conservation easement does is it allows us to be able to know that my children, my grandchildren, if they choose to hold on to the property, there would be no pressure to development," Fiala said.
The Stafford Hamlet, a rural unincorporated area totalling about 6,000 acres located near West Linn, Wilsonville, Tualatin and Lake Oswego, recently agreed to a new community plan that identified applying conservation easements on a significant portion of land within the region, which would bar development from taking place even if the urban growth boundary is expanded to include the area. The hamlet plans to present the plan to surrounding cities in the coming months.
But there is sure to be pushback on the idea, as most Stafford land is currently zoned as "urban reserve" (meaning it is slated to be included within the Metro urban growth boundary within the next 50 years) and a number of landowners continue to push for the ability to develop in the area. The future of Stafford has been debated — whether in neighborly disputes, hamlet meetings, local city hall discussions or even the courts — for decades, and two separate intergovernmental agreements adopted in 2017 and 2018 did little to quell those arguments.
In a multi-part series over the coming weeks, Pamplin Media Group is exploring the use and feasibility of conservation easements, alternative plans for Stafford and more.
An introduction to conservation easements
The push and pull between agricultural conservationists and the development community is an age-old battle.
Due to continual development pressure across the state, former Gov. Tom McCall helped establish the state's land use system, which now includes urban areas where extensive development can take place, areas preserved for rural use and current rural areas that are preserved for future urban use.
Conservation easements, however, add further agricultural protections. A landowner has to sign an agreement with a holder of the easement (often a land trust or government agency) relegating the land exclusively for agricultural use. The landowner can then receive a payment for the easement based on an appraisal of the property. The property value typically declines significantly once the land cannot be developed, but agencies like the Natural Resources Conservation Service can help cover the lost profits.
Misty Beals, the acting assistant state conservationist for programs, provided an example of a $1 million parcel converted to an easement.
"(With an easement) you can't put a power line through it. That can decrease the value of your property. Now the property is worth $500,000 with easement on it. You're out $500,000 and we're willing to pick up half of that," she said.
But while Oregon's land use system is lauded for its protectionalry emphasis, conservation easements are not heavily used. According to a study done by Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts and others in 2015, Oregon ranked 40th in the country in terms of the number of conservation easements imposed.
"Why there aren't many easements in Oregon is because it has long been assumed that our land use program did enough on its own to protect agricultural land from being lost forever to development, but I think over time we've realized it only slows the pace of development," said Nellie McAdams executive director for the Oregon Agricultural Trust. "Some of our most productive land is along rivers and waterways where humans prefer to build our settlements. Agricultural land is always in competition with development."
Another reason, some posited, was money. According to a study done by the University of Pennsylvania, the federal government provided over $1 billion in matching grants for the purchase of conservation easements on farmland between 1996 and 2017. Though the U.S. Farm Bill created federal funding that could provide match funding for easements, the Oregon Agricultural Heritage program passed by the Legislature designed to provide assistance for farmland protection hasn't been funded. Matt Shipkey, land legacy program manager for the East Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District, explained that successfully applying for federal funding typically requires a local match.
"Many other states provide that and Oregon hasn't," he said.
Fiala has looked to other areas of the country for inspiration. One of them is Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
'There's a deep commitment there'
Like Oregon, Lancaster County has urban growth boundaries. And yet, conservation easements proliferate.
According to the aforementioned University of Pennsylvania study, the county ranked first in the United States in terms of preserved farmland with over 100,000 acres preserved in a county that comprised about 600,000 acres.
According to Jeff Swinehart, chief operating officer for Lancaster Farmland Trust, the main reason the county has so many easements is due to a steadfast belief in agricultural preservation in the community. In fact, he said many farmers donate the proceeds from their easement to the land trust.
"In many cases the farm has been in the family for many generations — in some cases all the way back to when (founder of Pennsylvania colony) William Penn came and was making land grants. There's a deep commitment there," Swinehart said.
Rather than a regional government like Metro, Lancaster's growth boundary is run by individual municipalities. But the logic is essentially the same. Though farmland is preserved through land use regulations now, the whims of elected officials could shift in favor of sprawl — and the easements protect against that risk.
"Ordinances could change at any point, whether it's a small township in Lancaster, Pennsylvania or a county that's sizable in the state of Oregon," Swinehart said.
These easements are preserved mostly with the financial assistance of the county's Agricultural Preservation Board and the nonprofit organization Lancaster Farmland Trust, the latter of which is funded by local citizens. The trust, for instance, owns a piece of paper that protects the land and has a right to monitor the land to ensure that unallowed uses aren't taking place at the property. The organization caps the amount of money it will pay per acre for the easement, which suppresses the appraisal value considerably. However, property owners can claim some of the difference through a federal income tax deduction.
"It's trying to extend the limited dollars as far as possible. In our organization, 50 farmers are on a waiting list that are ready to preserve today if we had the resources to use them," Swinehart said.
Even in areas without easements, elected officials generally avoid encroaching farmland, Swinehart said. Instead of building outward to provide enough homes to serve the population, the county has decided to build upward.
"Our county planning commission recently adopted a comprehensive plan. They went through an analysis in terms of availability of land in growth areas. They believe we can accommodate population increases in more urban areas," he said.
A common worry among farmers, Swinehart said, is not that their own farm will be redeveloped but that their neighbors' will. This can lead to conflicts.
"It provides assurance to individual farm owners that their neighbor's farm isn't going to become a housing development or shopping center that might make it more difficult for their farm to become more viable," Swinehart said.
Stafford's development pressures and future plans
As was detailed in a Portland State University study of the Stafford Hamlet, the area was first added as an urban reserve in 1997, and then the Metro regional government added it to the urban growth boundary before a Land Use Board of Appeals decision reversed that ruling. In 2010, the area was again added as an urban reserve.
Stafford has unique typography in that much of the land is hilly and might be undevelopable. It's zoned primarily as Rural Residential Farm Forest 5-Acre (which can include a single-family home and agriculture uses) but a large chunk of land is zoned as Exclusive Farm Use.
Metro decided to add it as an urban reserve in part based on an agricultural report that posited that the hamlet is unsuitable for commercial agricultural production due to its lack of contiguous agricultural land.
"The few existing commercial operations located in the area are compromised by surrounding area development, parcelization and the potential for future residential development within the exception areas located in the subregion and at the edges along the UGB," the report read.
To help resolve the ongoing conflicts in the hamlet, Tualatin, West Linn and Lake Oswego, Clackamas and Metro forged a five-party intergovernmental agreement for planning in the area and then a new agreement was formed just between Tualatin, West Linn and Lake Oswego. These cities would need to sign off on any kind of urban development in the hamlet and the IGA further adds that no city can apply for expansion until the I-205 widening project has been designed and fully funded.
"If (Metro) determined we need to expand the UGB, we want to have local jurisdictions that support that expansion and are able to provide urban services," said Tim O'Brien, Metro's principal regional planner.
Fiala imagines a world where hundreds of acres within the hamlet are preserved for agricultural use. Land that is now wasting away largely unused as the owner waits to develop and to cash out could be turned into a small-scale farm for uses like raising sheep to produce wool, goats for goat cheese or u-cut berry-picking. And the aforementioned agricultural report indicated that Stafford could be amenable to "high-value, direct-marketed production."
"We're talking about small agriculture that serves the population very effectively," Fiala said.
Fiala suggested forging a similar agricultural trust to the one Swinehart runs in Lancaster County (he wants a third party to manage the money) and hoped that municipal governments like the cities of West Linn and Lake Oswego could play a role.
He is optimistic that they would do so.
"The first step has been accomplished. We've gotten people in the hamlet to say, 'yes this is our preference. We would prefer to have working agriculture in conversation of the agriculture area,'" he said.
Fiala is the vice chair of the hamlet, which is a community planning organization designated by Clackamas County. If Fiala had his wish, there would be no future development in Stafford. But he realizes he represents the entire hamlet constituency, some who are property owners hoping to sell or develop their land for a profit. And tying up the majority of the land to easements might not be realistic.
"We don't expect to tie up all the thousands of acres in the Stafford Hamlet under conservation easements. I don't know how we would find that much money," he said.
Challenges to urban growth?
Those involved with agricultural preservation hadn't heard of easements popping up in areas near urban growth boundaries. McAdams posited a theory for why that might not be.
"I think one of the challenges of preserving land near an urban growth boundary is if it is in the path of development, although it might be zoned for agriculture now, there's a chance it could be surrounded in the future and might be difficult for landowner to keep it in production, and there's neighbor conflicts that naturally arise from ag land and residential use," McAdams said. "It might be that those conflicts aren't there now but might be imminent."
If one were to glance at Metro's urban growth boundary map, the pockets of urban reserve land where future development is slated to occur in the metro area are tiny in comparison to the wide swaths of rural reserves.
The Stafford area is the largest in terms of land mass. And turning a large chunk of that land to agricultural use would prevent things like affordable housing development on that land (which we will discuss further in a future story).
However, because of the lack of agricultural conservation easements used near the growth boundary, Metro, which administers growth in the region, isn't especially worried about a potential proliferation of easements. O'Brien said the government is more focused on adding housing within the existing boundary than expanding outward. Still, large sections of urban reserve areas becoming conservation easements could create challenges. In Lancaster County, about 11% of parcels located along the edge of an urban growth boundary were protected by conservation easements, according to the University of Pennsylvania.
"Any kind of easement to that scale, obviously, whether for agriculture or other uses, would potentially impact the ability to urbanize in the area efficiently. If and when that does come to fruition, I think Metro would have to evaluate how we would address those issues. It's hard to say right now," O'Brien said.
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