Riverbend hearing draws full house
The hearing was scheduled for the McMinnville Civic Center, because it can accommodate a bigger crowd. That proved prescient, as witnesses and onlookers filled the center to capacity.
The Dec. 5 followup will also be held in the same place for the same reason.
Riverbend is making its second attempt to win land use approval for expansion of its current 88-acre footprint.
The first time, it proposed a 98-acre expansion based on the state's exception process. Rebuffed on appeal, it is now proposing a much-more-limited 37-acre expansion. And instead of seeking an exception under current zoning, it is seeking rezoning to exclusive farm use, as landfills are a permitted use in Oregon's EFU zone.
If it finds favor with that approach, it plans to seek funding from its parent firm, Houston-based Waste Management Inc., for development of a high-tech waste-to-energy facility on 25 adjacent acres. That would making the much smaller expansion pencil out, and Waste Management already has two such plants up and running, moving them from the theoretical and experimental to the practical here and now.
County ordinance requires both the existing property and the property on which it wishes to expand to lie wholly under EFU zoning, so the applocation includes the existing landfill, currently zoned public works/safety.
Opponents took issue with that, arguming that land neither currently in farm use nor intended for farm use cannot be properly accorded exclusive farm use status. They raised the same objection with other acreage in the application that is intended for landfill or waste-processing rather than farm use, saying that would serve to circumvent state intent.
Tommy Brooks, Waste Management's attorney, countered by making a distinction between farm zoning and actual farm use.
"There is no ambiguity in the statute," Brooks said. "It's clear that landfills are allowed in the farm zone. The criticism that the land is not being farmed or is in a farm use is misplaced because that is simply not a requirement for applying the farm zone to property that already contains a use allowed in that zone."
Opponents also expressed fear approving the zone change would pave the way for unfettered expansion onto adjacent EFU lands, despite Waste Management's stated commitment to just 37 acres.
In response, the county planning staff has proposed the commision impose an overlay formally limiting the company to 37 acres. In its report, the staff has identified specific tax lots that Riverbend would not be able to put to waste disposal use.
That wasn't good enough for Sid Friedman, spokesman for the land use watchdog group Friends of Yamhill County. He said the overlay could easily be lifted later, thus provides inadequate assurance.
He also contended Waste Management had failed to meet the criteria needed to justify the requested change in zoning.
He noted the Zia report, which established the original need basis for expansion, was now five years old. And he maintained, on behalf of Friends of Yamhill County, that the report had never adequately vetted alternatives in the first place.
Bill Kabeiseman, attorney for the Stop the Dump Coalition, submitted a letter backing those contentions and expanding on them.
"Leaving aside the obvious absurdity of re-zoning the site to an agricultural zone when the site will never be farmed again, the larger problem is that the re-zoning is directly counter to the policy embedded in the state administrative rules on landfills," Kabeiseman argued. "The re-zoning proposed here is nothing more than a shell game to allow Riverbend Landfill Company to avoid the restrictions in state law by re-zoning unfarmable land to farm land."
He said the county's zoning ordinance only allows landfills permitted by the state Department of Environmental Quality. And under state law, he argued, "DEQ cannot issue a permit for a landfill on a farmland without first determining that 'the site can and will be reclaimed for uses permissible in the exclusive farm use zone,' not including landfills."
He continued, "To make this determination, DEQ must find that the operator will 'rehabilitate' the site at the termination of the use for solid waste disposal 'to a condition comparable to its original use.'" And he said, "The original use was turkeys, tomatoes and other food crops."
Kabaiseman went on to argue, with support from James Johnson of the state Department of Agriculture, that re-zoning would not be consistant with state planning goals. He said the land doesn't qualify as farmland under state law now, because it no longer features the original class of soil.
Johnson said it a letter of his own, "The fact that there is not a predominance of agricultural soils found within the subject area, and the fact that exceptions to State Planning Goals 3 and 4 were acknowledged for the area, leads to a conclusion that the subject area does not qualify to be designated as agricultural land."
Larry Ojua, executive director of the Yamhill Soil & Water Conservation District, weighed in with another letter in opposition. He termed the notion of rezoning an active landfill to exclusive farm use "inconceivable."
Joining in opposition was the Willamette Valley Wineries Association, representing 194 wineries.
"Besides the negative impact on land, air and water, the landfill has a negative economic impact on the wine industry and tourism," said spokesman Thomas Gerrie. "And you can't call that farmland. You cannot farm on that land.
"Don't let me fool you with a sportcoat I wear twice a year. I'm a farmer, and I'm telling you that you can not farm on that."
Landfill supporters included local businessmen and employees who argued the company had always been a good community partner and was providing an essential service of major economic benefit. They were joined by state Sen. Brian Boquist and state Reps. Jim Thompson and Jim Weidner.
In a letter, the trio of local legislators said denial of an expansion would force local businesses and residents to have their waste shipped longer distances at greater cost. They said that supported expansion on the current site, as proposed.
In addition, they also took note of the company's reputation as a good community partner.
General Manager Scott Wagener of SP Fiber Technologies, a paper company based in Newberg, echoed those sentiments in his testimony.
"Riverbend plays a vital role for SP Fiber and other businesses throughout Yamhill County," he said. "We have been able to sustain our operations, in part, because of the affordable disposal services provided by Waste Management."
Ed Gormely, a longtime local businessman who served several terms as McMinnville mayor, also weighed in on Riverbend's side. He said having a regional landfill is an asset as valuable as the inexpensive electricity provided by Water & Light.
He was backed up on that by several other business owners when they got their turn to testify.
Several county commissioner candidates attended, but only Stan Primozich testified. He said he favored approval of the zone change.
In the past, commissioner candidates have typically avoided taking stances on issues that could come before them in a quasi-judicial format on down the road.
The application immediately at issue should clear the board by then, but could be remanded back on appeal for further consideration. And should he win election, Primozich could face challenges about his impartiality on related issues.
The board already has a member recusing herself — Mary Stern, because her husband works for Waste Management. However, she is one of the commissioners due for replacement in next year's balloting.
The planning staff has not yet issued a recommendation. It plans to do so Dec. 5, after reviewing the testimony presented Thursday.
The record will be held open for written testimony until 5 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 14, and for rebuttal to either oral or written testimony until 5 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 21. Waste Management then has until 5 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 27, to submit a formal written response.