If Hood River Valley Parks and Recreation wants a new park, they are going to have to find someplace else to build it.
By a 4-1 vote Monday evening the Hood River County Board of Commissioners overturned the county planning commission’s decision in favor of a 30-acre park near the corner of Barrett Road and Alameda Drive.
The vote was a preliminary one, and allows staff to write up a final report on the county’s reason for denial, which will be submitted to the board for final approval Sept. 4.
The decision came after a half-hour of deliberation by the commission and presentations by both sides in the appeal of the park’s approval.
Fritz and Joann von Lubken filed the appeal of the proposed 30-acre park, arguing it would eliminate limited high-value farmland and would have a detrimental impact on surrounding agriculture and would not ever be able to be used as farmland.
Ultimately the commission agreed with the von Lubkens.
All four of the commissioners who voted against the proposal — Bob Benton, Les Perkins, Karen Joplin and chairman Ron Rivers — each had different reasons for doing so.
All were supportive of some areas of the project, and sympathetic to the need for more park space, but all felt that sacrificing prime agricultural land for a park was not worth the trade-off.
Maui Meyer wound up as the lone vote in favor of the project.
Two of the members of the board — Benton and Rivers — are part of multi-generational agricultural families, and both expressed conflicting emotions over which way to go.
Benton said he was not concerned with the allowing a park on agricultural land causing a chain reaction which would have an adverse economic impact on local agriculture, but felt that plans to allow the site to be converted back to agriculture land if needed did not meet the threshold for approval.
“I still don’t feel that taking 30 acres out of farming is going to have a huge impact on the local farming economy, but will it start a chain reaction which will have an impact? I don’t think it will,” Benton said.
However throughout the proceedings Benton repeatedly expressed concerns over using the chosen property.
Rivers — who kept his feelings close to the vest for most of the hearing — was similarly conflicted.
He said he was reassured after hearing from county planner Eric Walker that using farm land for a park would not be setting a precedent.
However, he followed that statement moments later with his desire to protect local agriculture.
“There would be definite impact with me as a grower, with traffic; having to watch what you do when you spray; my laborers,” he said of trying to put himself in the mindset of what it would be like to live adjacent to a busy park. “I’m having a hard time with this issue. I want to protect my ag base.”
Much of the debate centered on whether or not the proposed park met the requirements of for land use in an exclusive farm use zone laid out in section 215.296, particularly sections which stated that non-farm use should only be allowed if the use would “force a significant change in accepted farm or forest practices on surrounding lands devoted to farm or force use” or “significantly increase the cost of accepted farm or forest practices on surrounding lands devoted to farm or forest use.”
Land use attorney Michael Robinson of Portland, arguing for Hood River Valley Parks and Recreation, said that the county should interpret surrounding as “adjacent.”
The planning commission vote to approve the project on those grounds was a narrow one, passing 4-3.
Fritz von Lubken and his attorney, William Kabeiseman, contended that turning the parcel into a park would permanently prohibit the land from ever being used for agriculture again and establish a precedent for the county being willing to sacrifice agricultural land for recreational usage.
Kabeiseman acknowledged that a park was an allowed use under Oregon law but said that the state had set strict guidelines for allowing non-farm use on agricultural land.
He sited Goal 3 of the State of Oregon Land Development and Conservation District Planning goals and guidelines, which states that non-farm uses permitted within farm use zones “… should be minimized to allow for maximum agricultural productivity.”
Von Lubken stated he felt there were numerous places a park could go in the county, and that high-value farmland should not be sacrificed.
“They don’t have to go on high-value farmland — the only place you can really be successful in the orchard business is high-value farmland,” he said.
Robinson said that the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals had already answered many of the concerns against the park in the 2007 case of Rural Thurston Inc. v. Lane County, which upheld Lane County’s right to make improvements to an already existing park and that all uses for the park were allowed under Oregon Administrative Rules governing park uses on agricultural land.
In the end the majority of the commission interpreted the word “surrounding” in ORS 215.296 in the broader sense, even though they felt they did not have to interpret it very broadly in a small valley.
“When I look at the overhead picture I see farmland everywhere. This is my neighborhood as well. I live in that area and I consider myself ‘surrounding’ and I live a couple miles away. I also take into account ‘surrounding’ for the larger picture: this is a small valley and the land is very precious and hard to come by and it needs to be well cared for and protected and I found myself still leaning toward the decision that this did create a significant impact.” she said.
Commissioner Les Perkins agreed.
“I tried to find evidence that this would not affect agriculture and I could not find that evidence ... I feel we have to default to the conservative perspective of not impacting ag land,” Perkins said.
The ag bloc of the board eventually lined up with Perkins and Joplin.
Benton particularly took exception to the statement by Robinson that by removing no dirt from the site and re-distributing it to affect the grade of the park, the park would not do permanent damage to any future agricultural use.
Despite believing that using the land as a park would not “negatively affect the farming community as a whole” in the area, Benton said he could not vote in favor of turning the high-value farmland into a park. Benton said the onus was on Parks and Recreation to prove that redistributing the topsoil would still allow the park to be converted back to agricultural land should the need arise, and he did not feel they did that.
“Dirt is not just dirt,” he said.