Woodburn Farmers Fight to Protect Agricultural Economy

By Craig Beebe, January 2011

Lolita Carl, Woodburn-area farmerLolita Carl has lived most of her life on the farm her grandparents started in 1915, so you might expect her to be more comfortable tending her crops than testifying before a state agency.

But there she was earlier this month, at a state Land Conservation and Development Commission hearing, fighting to protect the critical Oregon farmland she so passionately cherishes. Petite and somewhat shy, Carl spoke powerfully of the vision Oregon’s land use planning represents, reciting a portion of state law that created and supports it:

“Oregon law states, ‘The preservation of a maximum amount of the limited supply of agricultural land is necessary to the conservation of the state’s economic resources and the preservation of such land in large blocks is necessary in maintaining the agricultural economy of the state and for the assurance of adequate, healthful and nutritious food for the people of this state and nation.”

The LCDC hearing, held in a basement meeting room in Salem, was the latest chapter in a battle over the City of Woodburn’s proposed urban growth boundary expansion. Lolita Carl and her sister Kathleen, local activists, Friends of Marion County, the Marion County Farm Bureau, and 1000 Friends of Oregon have fought for years to prevent Woodburn’s proposal from gobbling up some of the most valuable farmland in the country.

Make no mistake – this is definitely not ‘anti-growth’ obstructionism on the part of these individuals and groups. In fact, they are not contesting most of the proposed 979-acre expansion. But they contend that Woodburn is proposing too much land for industrial expansion and unnecessarily including an area of prime, high value farmland for that expansion.

Interactive map of Woodburn UGB proposalThis matters because of agriculture’s importance to the state and local economy. Agriculture in Oregon is a multi-billion dollar industry and Marion County ranks at the top among all counties in gross agricultural sales. Agricultural sales in Marion County alone consistently top half a billion dollars annually. According to the Marion County Farm Bureau, “Agricultural land is industrial land, land that is supporting a successful portion of our county’s economy.”

Woodburn itself was once known as the Berry Capital of the World, a moniker which was prominently displayed on an arch over Highway 99E. Several agricultural processing facilities sit in and around the city center, and farm trucks are a frequent sight along its tree-lined streets. It is a remarkably diverse town, too, where Russian refugees from the Soviet Union came to settle in the mid-twentieth century, and where Hispanic shops and taquerias lend the small downtown a lively atmosphere long absent from many other small towns.

That identity seems lost on the tens of thousands of daily commuters between Portland and Salem. To many of them, Woodburn is a congested, I-5 freeway interchange, flanked by a Walmart, a large Winco distribution center and, of course, the Woodburn Company Stores, known simply as “the outlets.”

Rather than build on the strengths of a solid agricultural economic base and rich cultural diversity, Woodburn’s UGB expansion plans would create massive sprawl outside of the current city and ignores the potential of undeveloped land within the existing UGB. In fact, the City openly admitted that as much as half of the newly-designated industrial lands would not develop during the 20-year timeframe allowed by state law.

The most controversial - and contested – portion of the expansion proposal involves a 130-acre parcel of land west of Interstate-5 known as the Opus property. The site, on the opposite side of the freeway from Woodburn proper, contains some of the state’s most valuable farmland.

The loss of critical farmland, and the erosion of the city’s heritage, was too much for the Carls to bear. Lolita and Kathleen were inspired in part by their father, a former Marion County Farm Bureau president who was active in land-use issues throughout their childhood. “Dad used to say ‘we have laws,’” Lolita says, “but we saw they were being circumvented.” At first, they didn’t know what to do. But Sid Friedman, 1000 Friends’ Willamette Valley advocate, helped the Carls and several other Woodburn-area families find their voice. “Sid gave us confidence to get up and say something,” Lolita says.

And so began many years of attending meetings, writing letters, and speaking at hearings before the Woodburn City Council and eventually the Land Conservation and Development Commission. 1000 Friends, the Carls, and others won a victory in the Oregon Court of Appeals in 2010, sending the issue back to LCDC for reconsideration. When LCDC held its hearing on January 12, the Carls were there again, expressing their opposition to the City’s proposal.

“Farmland is not undeveloped land,” Lolita told the LCDC Commissioners. “It already supports Marion County’s leading industry: agriculture.” Another Woodburn activist, Diane Mikkelson, who along with her sister Carla has lived in Woodburn almost her entire life, reminded the commissioners that “agricultural land is finite, and not retrievable” once it is paved over for other industries.

Although LCDC voted to continue its approval of the entire Woodburn UGB proposal (with some slight changes in its explanation for doing so), the Carls and 1000 Friends will continue to advocate for a more balanced vision of growth in Woodburn.

Back on the farm, reflecting on LCDC’s decision, Lolita expresses frustration. “Only after a resource is gone do we often come to value it as we should.”

Update, January 2014:  The Oregon Court of Appeals has issued a ruling agreeing with the position of 1000 Friends and our co-petitioners, reversing the UGB expansion and returning it to the City. Unfortunately, Lolita Carl passed away in summer 2013. While she is missed, we know this victory is a testament to her hard work and commitment.