Hood River farmer faces land-use 'hard spot'

PARKDALE -- The "for sale" signs are up on a prime piece of farm land in Hood River's upper valley -- but no one is buying.

Charles "Lee" and Nona Moore of Parkdale have been trying to sell their 80-acre tree fruit operation and farmhouse for more than one year. But other local growers can't afford to buy any of their three deeded parcels since they have also been losing money for the past several years and can't spare the extra capital. Although one prospective buyer stepped forward last winter to make a deal on a 30-acre tract, that individual backed away from the deal after he learned he could not build a home on the property because of its stringent zoning.

That has left orchardist Charles Moore feeling "caught between a rock and a hard spot."

"I never dreamed that I'd live to see a day like this," said the 67-year-old Hood River Valley native.

Moore, who is semi-retired because of health problems, has grown bountiful harvests for the past several years but hasn't been able to realize a profit because of a spike in production costs, stiff competition from foreign trade and a consolidation of grocers that has driven market prices down. Nona is currently working part-time off the farm to help make ends meet but this summer the couple lost the full-time managerial help of their son, Steve, 40, when he was forced to take a job at Diamond Fruit Company to meet daily living expenses.

"The way it's going what we have known as the family farm 10 years from now, or maybe less, will not exist," said Moore.

Lee said he purchased his original 45-acre homesite and surrounding orchard in 1984 while working for Stadelman's Fruit Company. He wanted to return to his agriculture roots and had grown up believing that land was the best long-term investment. Gradually he added to his holdings, until he had acquired three sizable shares of property.

But now he is afraid that what he believed was a good investment has jeopardized his financial future.

"I guess I was caught up in this farm syndrome where you think things are going to be better," said Moore.

However, if farmers hold 160 acres of agriculture property they are automatically granted the right to build a home, according to Eric Walker, Hood River County senior planner. He said a home is also allowed on a smaller parcel if the owner can show a gross annual income of at least $80,000, if it is not classified as high-value farm land, or if the parcel was owned prior to 1985 and there is no residence on any contiguous piece deeded to the same individual. The process to gain an exemption to these rules, said Walker, is difficult because it requires the owner to prove that the property is unsuitable for farming based on its soil, size, or other land characteristics and that placement of a home would be compatible with surrounding uses.

"The whole intent of the zone is to preserve areas which are suitable for farming for that use, and the rules don't necessarily take into effect the economics," said Walker.

But Hood River farmers said the lack of attention to the financial aspects of owning agricultural land is threatening their assets. Without strong governmental intervention to level the playing field in foreign trade, economists estimate that between 20-30 percent of the valley's 300 orchardist families could be out of business within the next two years.

Like the Moore family, many of them are fearful not only for the loss of their livelihood but the loss of their home if it is foreclosed upon because they cannot pay their mortgage and tax bills.

Oregon began its extensive land-use planning effort in the early 1970s. Since that time 19 statewide planning goals have been adopted and Goal 3 requires counties to keep an inventory of agricultural lands and "preserve and maintain" them through zoning. Local land-use plans are required to meet the approval of the state Land Conservation and Development Commission, which is made up of seven unsalaried volunteers who are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state senate.

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