Three Oregon legislators have introduced bills on behalf of the Oregon Farm Bureau requiring land use permits for wetland restoration on farmland. As noted in this article, the Farm Bureau believes that this legislation is necessary to prevent restoration activities from taking land out of agricultural production.
House Bill 2173 and Senate Bill 338 would make “creation, restoration or enhancement of wetlands” a conditional use in the Exclusive Farm Use (EFU) zone. Currently, these activities are outright permitted on EFU land. Senate Bill 338 would also limit the price that public entities can pay farmers for conservation easements to five percent of the fair market value of the lot subject to the easement.
State law requires an applicant for a conditional use permit to demonstrate that the proposed use will not force a change or increase the costs of local farming practices. These permits are also subject to substantial public process and the potential for appeals to the Land Use Board of Appeals. In order to recoup costs associated with this public process, Oregon counties typically charge thousands of dollars for a conditional use permit.
Farming takes place in wetland areas throughout the Willamette Valley and in other agricultural regions across Oregon. Certain agricultural practices are exempt from the Clean Water Act and other laws designed to preserve wetlands. Ecosystem service markets, however, give farmers economic incentives to restore wetlands and other natural features that improve water quality and wildlife habitat. In a water quality trading program, for example, businesses and municipalities can meet their water quality obligations by funding riparian restoration in agricultural areas. These restoration activities provide both a supplemental income stream for farmers and a broad spectrum of environmental benefits.
By making it harder for farmers to engage in voluntary restoration activities, the Farm Bureau’s wetland bills could hamper both economic activity and environmental restoration in rural Oregon. The sponsors of the bill are bipartisan and one is the chair of the new House Land Use Committee, so it appears that the bill will receive serious consideration by the Legislature.