Should the Oregon Supreme Court decide to hear an appeal from opponents to expansion of Riverbend Landfill, those opponents will have a pair of powerful allies in the fight.
The Oregon Farm Bureau Federation and 1000 Friends of Oregon filed amicus (friends of the court) briefs with the state's highest judiciary last week, joining the primary appellants — Stop the Dump Coalition, farmer Ramsey McPhillips, Friends of Yamhill County and the Willamette Valley Wine Growers Association.
At issue is Riverbend owner Waste Management's plan to increase the size of the landfill significantly so as to extend its life for a year or more. The opponents have been fighting the plan since it was revealed in 2015, arguing their case first before the Yamhill County Board of Commissioners, then appealing the BOC's decision repeatedly to the Land Use Board of Appeals, then appealing LUBA's latest decision to the Court of Appeals, and finally seeking redress before the Oregon Supreme Court.
County officials have remarked that it appears the opponents' plan is to continue fighting the expansion in the courts until the remaining space in the landfill is filled and the facility is forced to close.
The Oregon Farm Bureau Federation, which represents 7,000 farming and ranching families across the state, said in its brief that its primary objection is to a particular section of the Court of Appeals' findings.
"OFBF was one of the early proponents of Oregon's land use planning system and views proper functioning of the land use system as critical to the viability of agriculture in Oregon," the brief stated. "The issues raised by this case are significant to OFBF and its members. The precedent set by this case could have long-standing impact on the viability of farm and ranch land that is facing increasing development pressure."
At issue is the Court of Appeal's finding that appeared to allow non-farm uses on farm land if farmers in the area that are adversely affected are compensated.
"ORS 215.596 contains the standards under which local governments evaluate proposed land use projects to ensure that any non-farm uses that are located within farm and ranch lands not make it more difficult for existing farms and ranches to stay in business," the OFBF brief said in questioning the Court of Appeals' decision. "The correct construction of ORS 215.596 is essential to the effective implementation of Oregon's land use planning system for farm and forest lands."
The OFBF called on the Oregon Supreme Court to ensure that the interpretation of the state statute is consistent with the "plain language of the statute and its legislative history," adding that the standard applied by the Court of Appeals "has the potential to allow a significant influx of new non-farm uses in farm zones without proper mitigation to avoid impacts."
1000 Friends of Oregon was equally damning in its assessment of the Court of Appeals decision.
"The court's interpretation of ORS 215.596 … will effectively 'open the gates' to nonfarm uses for two reasons: it appears to define the significant impacts as impacts to the agricultural land supply and food production rather than localized impacts – a standard that will allow for death by a thousand cuts, as no farmer can show with certainty that a nonfarm use will cause a significant decrease in the land supply or level of food produced, statewide or otherwise; and it allows an applicant to speculate about a neighboring farm's profitability without having any data or certainty."
The brief goes on to argue that by the Court of Appeals focusing on food production it appears to ignore the impacts on non-food agricultural products, specifically two of Oregon's five commodities grown in great quantities in Yamhill County – nursery/greenhouse stock and grass seed.
The stakes are high in the state, 1000 Friends insists in the brief, because more than 45 percent of the land in Oregon is farmland or forestland, a total of 28 million acres, and is responsible for providing thousands of jobs.
"Every working farm and forest in Oregon is susceptible to conflicts with nearby non-farm uses," the brief states. "Presently, counties review approximately 500 applications a year for non-farm and non-forest uses and in each instance they apply the 'significant change/cost' standard."
As of May 11, the Oregon Supreme Court had not determined whether it will hear the appellants' case. The Court of Appeals decision remanding the issue back to the Board of Commissioners will not be heard until Waste Management requests a hearing.