Part of the recently approved Chapter 3 (Agricultural Land) of Wasco County 2040 is a historical review of farm land regulations and laws.  The history of agricultural lands and state law are critical to understand current agricultural lands regulations in Wasco County’s Land Use and Development Ordinance.

Here is the text from Chapter 3:

Wasco County has had agricultural land regulations since the inception of its planning program in the 1950s.  In 1953, there was a county subdivision ordinance that required review of new plats by the planning commission. Portions of the County had a zoning ordinance as early as 1955, and in 1956 agricultural districts or zones were established to limit uses.

In the A-1 zone in 1956, there were nineteen permitted uses.  Many of the permitted uses are similar to those still allowed outright or through permits in the agricultural zones today.

By 1963, the Oregon legislature codified the Exclusive Farm Use (EFU) zone and allowed uses (ORS 215).  Coupled with the farm tax deferral program, started in 1961, the vision to conserve farmland for agricultural use was clearly established.

In 1970, Wasco County adopted two additional agricultural zones, A-2 and A-3, as well as two forest zones, F-1 and F-2.  These new zones established conditional uses, above and beyond permitted uses, for resource zones.

Senate Bill 100, adopted in 1973, created the statewide land use planning program and its “priority consideration” over resource zones, including agricultural lands.  This bill “reasserted state level authority over land use policy and zoning” (Sullivan and Eber, 8).  This bill established the Land Conservation and Development Commission and the Statewide Planning Goals that directed further iterations of Wasco County’s land use plans. 

In 1983, the Comprehensive Plan identified 20 acre and 80 acre EFU zones.  In 1996, Wasco County adopted new EFU provisions in response to 1993 HB 3661, which included rezoning all EFU lands to 160 acres. 

In 1998, Wasco County was awarded a Go Below to zone orchard lands at a 40 acre minimum parcel size in keeping with their high value crops and ability to produce high returns on smaller parcels of land.  This was also consistent with historic agricultural practice in the orchard areas. 

Significant work was done in the 1990s and 2000s by a special advisory group called the Agricultural Resource Group.  This group set many of the setbacks, allowances, and additional restrictions above and beyond state law present in the Land Use and Development Ordinance (LUDO) up until Wasco County 2040.

In 2016, Wasco County was awarded a grant from DLCD that produced an independent audit of the LUDO in comparison with the recently developed Model Code for resource zones.  This audit will be used for future LUDO updates, to ensure compliance with state law.

This overview details the relevant updates to state law, as well as the historical practices for land use planning as relates to farmland.

One of the most significant changes to Wasco County’s Exclusive Farm Use Zone regulations were the modifications to minimum parcel size.  Prior to the 1993 update to state law, Wasco County maintained both large and small size agricultural properties for the diverse crop types.  While this was recaptured through a Go Below to allow for a 40 acre minimum parcel size for orchard lands, the 160 acre minimum for other farm lands, including dry land wheat and ranches, was over 80 acres larger than previously proscribed by the Comprehensive Plan.

The reason for the change from 80 acre to 160 acre minimums were laid out by the Agricultural Resource Group (ARG) that met in the 1990s and again in the early 2000s to address HB 3661 and other changes to Goal 3 (to read a 1993 handout of rule changes of HB 3661 please see this: 1993HB3661Sheet.)

The ARG were a group of 14 resource operators from varying sectors of the agricultural field/industry who leant their expertise to updating planning regulations.  From planning documents in the Wasco County Planning Department Archives, points of consensus among the ARG (1995) were:

  • “The parceling of productive agricultural land into lots can lead to a pattern of parcels that are…too small for productive agricultural operations.”  This in turn, they identified, would create management problems for adjacent farm operations.
  • “Existing agricultural zoning (A-1-80) does not adequately illustrate the range and diversity of parcel sizes needed to address the three diverse commercial agricultural sectors (perennials, field crops and livestock) in Wasco County.”
  • “Wasco County is beginning to see increasing pressure to convert agricultural lands to other uses.”
  • “Continuing population growth in some areas of Wasco County has led to more complaints from nearby residents about agricultural conditions or activities such as dust and odors, machinery on roads, aerial spraying and chemical weed suppression.”
  • “Nuisance complaints and conflicts with neighbors can potentially create economic hardship for agricultural producers.”

According to documents from the ARG meetings, the 160 acre minimum was supported because it helped address some of the above issues, particularly reducing conflict between agricultural and non-agricultural uses.  Because state law also requires 160 acres to establish a house in conjunction with farm use (660-033-0135), the minimum parcel size adjustment was also seen as more clear and transparent standard for division.

There have been some minor changes to agricultural lands since the 1990s, some of which have been incorporated into the Land Use and Development Ordinance (LUDO).  Others, including required, or legislative, change have not yet been adopted into local rules but are still applicable.

Part of the Department of Land Conservation and Development Model Code Project was to identify those gaps in the Wasco County LUDO and make suggestions for an update.  You can read more about that project here: https://www.co.wasco.or.us/departments/planning/long_range/wc_ludo_audit.php

During the 2017 Wasco County 2040 visioning work, staff and the Citizen Advisory Group heard a lot of interest from the community in continuing to protect lands for agricultural use.  There was also significant interest in introducing a less one-size-fits-most minimum parcel size to help spur economic development, particularly with niche or speciality farms and startup farms and ranches.

What are your thoughts about minimum parcel size for agricultural lands in Wasco County?  Send us a comment, attend an upcoming event, or find other ways to participate.  Minimum parcel sizes in farm lands will be a primary topic of the 2019 roadshow meetings, so stay tuned for upcoming meeting dates!