As the city of Hood River tackles the issue of housing for all — including the question of short-term vacation rentals — planners for Hood River County are close to wrapping up an extensive process to adjust land-use language affecting exclusive farm use and forest resource lands.
Earlier this month, about 1,800 Hood River County property owners got notice of pending changes to the county zoning code that could affect how they use their property.
It all comes before the Hood River County Planning Commission during a public hearing at 6 p.m. tonight, Wednesday, Sept. 9, in the Board of County Commissioners’ conference room at 601 State St., Hood River.
Some property owners, like Brian Camastral, are concerned that possible changes might limit use of their land value-added agriculture – including agri-tourism.
The state Department of Land Conservation and Development selected Hood River, Union, Coos and Lake counties to update their farm and forest zoning codes as part in the Model Codes Update Project. Why those four counties?
Josette Griffiths, a planner with Hood River County, says the last such update to exclusive farm use lands was in 1996, and for its Forest Zone in 2001.
The updates are designed to bring county code into synch with uses and limits on uses that have trickled since then into the Oregon Revised Statutes and Oregon Administrative Rules.
Some of the updates are mandatory. The county took the update opportunity to consider optional changes as well.
“My wife, Lynn, and I own the 25-acre Lavender Valley farm operation at 5965 and 5985 Boneboro Road in Parkdale, and the 91-acre Riversong Sanctuary on Odell Highway,” says Camastral, a former president of Mars Global Food, a division of the company that makes products that include Snickers, Dove, M&Ms and pet food products such as Sheba and Whiskas.
“We bought both properties because we come from rural beginnings, and love the life that comes with extracting a crop from good soil,” Camastral says. “I want to invest my energies in helping grow and diversify Hood River County’s historic farm- and forest-based economy.
“For ourselves, and many young people seeking a path to sustainable farm life, the secret to success is adding value to our limited harvest.”
In response to a query from the Gorge Grown Food Network, county planning director John Roberts explained that concerns seem to revolve around possible elimination of language that would guide activities considered “agri-tourism.”
Roberts says county code allows — and would continue to allow — such things as farm stands, wineries, wedding venues, and things like the Alpaca farms that also have shops, activities that many people think of as agri-tourism.
“But none of these are ‘agri-tourism’ as used in the code update,” he wrote to Gorge Grown. “And there are not any proposals to limit or change those categories in the code update.”
He said “agri-tourism is a new category that has been included in state law to allow a limited number of commercial or educational events on farmland that doesn’t already have a permit for something else.”
He said state law gives four possible categories of agri-tourism events. 1) single event (less than 16 hours/100 attendees) 2) single event (up to 72 hours and 500 attendees) 3) up to six events a year 4) up to 18 events a year but only on properties of more than 80 acres. Under state law, categories 1-3 have to be on 10 acres or more (smaller parcels require all the adjoining property owners to give their permission).
He said the county has the option to adopt some, or all, or a modified versions of what the state has defined.
“Additionally, there is another provision in state law and under our code–‘outdoor mass gathering’ — which could cover events like Lavender Daze,” Roberts says.
“Right now the Planning Commission seems to be leaning towards allowing single agri-tourism events as an over the counter permit but restricting the larger or more frequent events–that’s why those sections are crossed out on the draft online.”
During earlier work sessions, representatives of the Hood River Valley Residents Committee expressed the opinion that limiting use to a single event “could be too restrictive and that a little more flexibility might be worth exploring.”
He told the small farm group that the Planning Commission could probably use more input from farmers who might put on events like the Gorge Grown Harvest Dinner coming up this fall, “so they have a better idea of what they are like and how they fit into farming operations in Hood River.”
In defending the importance of value-added products such as Gorge Delights, Juanita’s Foods, The Fruit Company, Foxtail Cider, Oregon Brineworks and Big Yogi Salsa, Camastral noted that “value” is occasionally is an on-farm experience.
Camastral said that limits on agri-tourism events would constrict economic opportunity.
“What if, for example, 100 people were invited to glean a crop, learning at the same time about who grew it, and how,” he said. “What if that many people could enjoy a meal created from crops grown on that land, or – heaven forbid – sleep it all off under the stars on a cloudless night?”
He hopes to encourage a variety of uses, subjecting those of potential concern to staff review through a conditional use permit.
“The growing appeal of locally sourced foods, the so-called “farm to table” movement, could and should have the opportunity to flower in the farm zone,” he says. “Why should farm products require shipment to an urban table, because we don’t allow agri-tourists to attend a table – at the farm?”
Roberts told Gorge Grown “the Planning Commission could probably use more input from farmers who might put on these events so they have a better idea of what they are like and how they fit into farming operations in Hood River.”