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Oregon’s most populous county appears poised to eliminate a process for allowing people to build houses on certain farmlands.

State law and county code currently provide several permitting options for people hoping to build houses on land zoned for farm use, according to county planning staff.

Multnomah County Commissioners unanimously approved the first reading of an ordinance Thursday, Jan. 13, that would do away with one of those permitting options.

County planning staff say the option has become difficult to administer due to a lack of updated data on the crops that could be grown on the farmland properties.

The permitting option allows people to designate a house or “primary dwelling” on a farmland property that is under 160 acres, doesn’t have high-value soil and is not actively being farmed, but could produce at least the median level of annual gross sales of certain crops farmed in Multnomah County.

The process requires the county to conduct a study to estimate the potential gross sales of the land within one mile of the property.

But in order for county staff to conduct that study, they need to use the most recent local crop data from the Oregon State University Extension Service or equivalent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to county staff.

The most recent OSU extension service data is from 2012, Adam Barber, deputy county planning director, told the commissioners on Thursday. He added that budget cuts at the USDA forced the agency to collect necessary data once every five years instead of annually and stop collecting other data outright.

“Using the data that’s available from the USDA would likely impact the analysis that we’re required to perform by state law in ways that were not intended when the law was put into place,” Barber said. “The rule is effectively inoperable.”

Barber noted that people applying to use the permitting option is rare, with only two applications being submitted in the last 20 years, one of which was a resubmittal of a prior application that had expired.

He also said the issue would be best addressed by the state legislature.

Two people spoke in opposition to removing the permitting process during a public comment period Thursday.

Their comments focused on how removing the process would create a barrier to prospective farmers, who already face many challenges, and whose chances of success would be boosted by living on the property where they plan to farm.

In his comments in opposition to the ordinance, Jay Udelhoven, director of the Multnomah County Farm Bureau, said new farmers bring diversity into the food system people depend on.

“Removing this important housing option from code works against these important objectives,” Udelhoven said in submitted written testimony.

Carol Chesarek, the sole person to provide testimony in favor of eliminating the permitting process, said it is not likely to be used by people who intend to use the land for farming.

Chesarek, who identified herself as the president of the Forest Park Neighborhood Association but said her comments had not been endorsed by the association, added that the permitting process encourages people to build “trophy homes” on land intended for farming.

“That’s going to raise farmland values, not lower them,” Chesarek said. “This is really only useful for applicants who have lawyers who can find favorable data for their clients' applications.”

Multiple commissioners said they appreciate that some prospective farmers may want to build a house on land they intend to farm.

In response to a question from Commissioner Lori Stegmann, Barber said if the agencies the county relies on for needed data start producing it regularly again, the county could re-adopt to permitting process.

Board Chair Deborah Kafoury cited the Multnomah County Planning Commission’s recommendation to adopt the ordinance, the potential for home-building to increase the cost of farmland and the small number of applicants to the permitting process in her support of the ordinance.

The board may vote to adopt the ordinance following a second reading at their meeting on Thursday, Jan. 20.

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