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By today's land-use standards, county commissioners don't pass the test

All three have homes in exclusive farm use zones, which would be denied permits under standards they might adopt Thursday
News Editor
   April 9, 2003 — Jefferson County’s three commissioners — both stewards and residents of the county’s 59,000 acres of prime irrigated farmland — would not be allowed to build homes on their own property today under the land-use ordinances they are expected to adopt tomorrow.
    The commission is scheduled to deliberate at 2 p.m. Thursday on draft ordinances that, as written, would maintain Jefferson County’s land-use policy as one of the strictest in the state.
    Under that same policy, the homes Walt Ponsford, Bill Bellamy and Mary Zemke live in would be denied under today’s zoning and building permit criteria.
    Each commissioner lives in the A1 Exclusive Farm Use zone, known as EFU-A1. Their dwellings are older than the innovative land-use system former Gov. Tom McCall pushed through the Legislature in 1973 under Senate Bill 100.
    The goal of the land-use system then, as it is now, was to preserve the state’s agricultural economy by protecting its limited supply of land from being overdeveloped.
    Although that system has since been nibbled at by the Legislature, which has given counties options to adopt less stringent farmland development criteria, Jefferson County has held the line for three decades against pressure to carve high-value farmland into small parcels.
    A property owner today cannot create a parcel less than 80 acres in the EFU-A1 zone. And to qualify for a dwelling on prime soils, one still must pass the so-called $80,000 income test. Adopted by the state in 1994, the income test requires those pursuing a house on high-value farmland to show they grossed $80,000 of farm income in two consecutive years or three out of the past five years.
    Farmland must be available at a cost that reflects its value for farming, not residential use, so goes the thinking behind the income test.
    Neither Bellamy, Zemke or Ponsford make their living off farming.
    Bellamy wouldn’t pass the income test today on his 41-acre parcel, he admits. Ponsford and Zemke, meanwhile, said it’s a push whether they could generate $80,000 on their 81- and 72-acre sites, respectively.
    “With the right crop, I could probably do it,” said Ponsford, a retired school teacher who grows hay. “I think I have in the past, but that was when I grew mint. But I can’t prove it.”
    Said Zemke: “If I focused my attention on it and did nursery stock, I could, but that’s not my intent or interest right now.”
    Yet the three commissioners’ dwellings aren’t considered illegal or noncompliant since they were grandfathered in.
    The fact three commissioners’ dwellings wouldn’t qualify were they applied for today suggests many EFU homes are in the same boat, said Butch Parker, the county’s planning director. But Parker, who was hired by the county in October of 2001, said he has no way of knowing what percentage.
    “Some of those farm houses have been there since the ’50s or ’60s,” Parker said. “Who knows how many before zoning?”
    Zemke, a medical transcriptionist, raises horses on 72 acres off Deschutes Drive near the convergence of the Dry and Willow Creek canyons. She’s owned her home there since 1990, county assessor records show. It was built in 1949.
    Bellamy, a Realtor, has owned his home since 1983, where he grows hay on 41 acres off Gem Lane near Culver. His home was built in 1940.
    Ponsford purchased his 81 acres in Agency Plains off Danube Drive in 1971. His home was constructed in 1929, records show.
    The fact the commissioners’ homes wouldn’t be allowed under the draft ordinance they likely will rule on Thursday has been raised by advocates of easing restrictions.
    Realtor Dick Dodson of Coldwell Banker testified to that nuance two weeks ago during the commission’s latest zoning hearing. He called for them to reinsert the so-called “Lot of Record” dwellings deleted from the previous commission’s version, which was appealed twice and voluntarily remanded following Ponsford’s and Zemke’s election. A Lot of Record dwelling would allow property owners who met certain criteria to build a single-family home on land they had owned prior to 1985, regardless of acreage or income.
    “I suspect they will pass the zoning ordinance with Lot of Record out of it,” Dodson said. “And it should be in there.
    “If they wanted something like they have today it would not be available to them.”
    And in January, Madras Mayor Rick Allen, during his State of the City speech, challenged the commissioners to open up land for development, calling any justification for maintaining the status quo a “charade.”
    “Go down the list,” Allen said at the time. “Since Herschel Read there hasn’t been a farmer-Jefferson County Commissioner that actually lived on a working farm under the laws that everyone is preaching.”
    In the context of the commissioners’ own dwellings, Bellamy said Lot of Record advocates are using it as a rallying point when in reality it’s not an answer to an underlying issue.
    “We have no flexibility to address certain individuals,” said Bellamy, who twice has voted to adopt the Lot of Record.
    Bellamy and Ponsford also have secondary dwellings on their property that would be prohibited had they not beaten the implementation of the land-use planning system.
    The county’s zoning ordinances only allow these dwellings today if they qualify as hardships for relatives. A permit is required that must be renewed every two years. Once the hardship is over, the dwellings are supposed to be removed.
    This enforcement rests with county’s planning department, but Parker admits it hasn’t been done with regularity.
    “It hasn’t been one of our priorities in the past,” he said. “It’s difficult to police, but we’re looking at bringing it up.”
    Bellamy rents out a manufactured home that was put on his property in 1963 — 20 years before he owned it. Ponsford put a double-wide mobile home on his property in 1976, records show.
    “Because of the controversy, we probably should get rid of it,” Ponsford said. “It’s been kind of a free rent for people that needed it — and it’s been mostly for people in our family — and it’s never been a profitable thing, whether that makes sense to anyone.”
    Ponsford also said three mobile camping units on his property sit idle, and he is trying to get rid of them, too.
    “I’m not in the rental business,” Ponsford said. “I don’t like to be a landlord and I want people to know that. If anyone wants to talk to me about it, they’re welcome.”
    In Bellamy’s opinion, people living in the EFU zones can’t meet today’s income standards unless they have large farms.
    “Unless you owned basically what we call good farm ground — 120 to 160 acres minimum — you’d have to be a really good farmer or you could not meet the $80,000 income test,” he said.
    Zemke, however, indicated she had a different interpretation of who is and who isn’t a farmer.
    “How can you accuse Bill and Walt of not being farmers? What is the definition of a farmer if Bill and Walt don’t qualify?” Zemke asked, noting she could see where people might say she doesn’t fit the bill.
    Nothing is illegal about the commissioners’ grandfathered dwellings, but critics have suggested it could cause a credibility problem if they chose to deny Lot of Record homes to property owners who’ve held land for more than 30 years.
    Bellamy said that’s not a fair assessment.
    “Would it have been any less fair than when (former commissioners) Janet Brown and Mike Ahern lived in the city to tell them they couldn’t vote on resource land because they didn’t live in it?” he asked rhetorically.
    In reality, Ponsford said, the county is bound by income tests that don’t always make sense.
    “You couldn’t then and you can’t now make a living off 80 acres,” he said. “People who live on 80 acres have to consider it a hobby farm.”