Central Oregon residents debate water, farming, housing impacts of 700 acres

August 18, 2022
Central Oregon residents debate water, farming, housing impacts of 700 acres

Developer wants to build up to 71 homes west of Terrebonne

A public hearing Wednesday focused on a seemingly simple question: Should a plot of rocky land northwest of Redmond be considered “farmland”?

Deschutes County commissioners heard hours of testimony both for and against an application to allow potential low-density housing development on just over 700 acres of land off NW Lower Bridge Road, west of Terrebonne. The hearing Wednesday pitted concerns about housing availability against issues of water use, farmland affordability and rural development.

The application, submitted by 710 Properties LLC, would change the land, owned by Eden Central Properties LLC, from an exclusive farm use zone to a rural residential one. That would open the door for the landowner to apply to build a subdivision on the property with up to 71 homes, but commissioners decided Wednesday they would make a final decision on the rezoning at another meeting on Sept. 28.

The process has attracted significant attention from nearby landowners, farmers, conservation groups and other area residents, many of whom filled the meeting room and online queue to make comments Wednesday.

Central to 710 Properties’ application is the argument that the property doesn’t meet the state’s definition of “farm use,” a burden they have to meet in order to justify the change in zoning. To make the point, Ken Katzaroff, an attorney for the owners, relied on expert reports showing the property’s soils aren’t fit for growing crops and that the water use impact of new homes would be negligible.

“My point is we’ve done the work, we’ve looked at what our potential farm use is, what our potential ‘agricultural’ use is if we want to go broader. But at the end of the day, the state law test is whether you’re doing one of those uses for the purpose of actually making a profit,” Katzaroff told commissioners at the conclusion of the session’s public comments. “What the experts say, and what the evidence shows is that we can’t here.”

A county-appointed hearings officer, who considered evidence and arguments about the legality of the change, issued a report in June finding that the application met that burden and that commissioners should approve the application.

Still, a number of commenters Wednesday took issue with that analysis.

Carol Macbeth, an attorney for Central Oregon LandWatch, argued to commissioners that the property could, in fact, be used to sustain a profitable farm.

“Farm uses are possible,” Macbeth told commissioners. “A greenhouse is possible without any use of the soil. Poultry would be possible. There’s all these things that one could do that don’t require good soils. They may require water, but water, again, is available to the property.”

Katzaroff rebutted Macbeth’s suggestion by arguing the cost of obtaining water rights had to be considered when determining that a farm could be “profitable,” and that doing so for the property would be prohibitively expensive.

A number of comments came from nearby property owners concerned that wells dug for the 71 new homesites would impact the wells on their property. Some noted that, due to drought and other causes, their wells are already approaching their lowest level or need to be dug deeper to keep water pumping.

Those wells would be considered “exempt” under state law, meaning all 71 could pump up to 15,000 gallons of water for domestic use a day without needing to mitigate that use by returning water back to the Deschutes Basin.

“My pump is currently one foot off the bottom of my well. That’s getting pretty close to none,” said Kim Campbell, who lives north of the property. “If you’re going to put a subdivision south of me, it could easily affect my well, and everybody else’s wells that are these shallow wells.”

In response to water concerns, Katzaroff pointed to a consultant’s study, which concluded that “measurable interference with existing wells is unlikely to occur” with the drilling of 71 new wells.

Commissioner Phil Chang was the board’s chief skeptic of the rezoning application, echoing arguments the property could be farmed and that new homes could impact the water supply.

A number of other commenters, some wearing “every home counts” buttons, expressed support for the proposal, citing the region’s need for new housing and the developers’ plans to use solar power and donate some proceeds from development to nonprofits.

-Zack Demars

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