County OKs controversial trail, farmers’ fight not over

Special Reports

The years-long fight over a proposed multi-use path is straining relationships in wine country

Farmers rallied in Yamhill County against a multi-use trail, May 21, 2020 (KOIN)

CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. (KOIN) — Commissioners in Yamhill County have once again approved a portion of a proposed multi-use trail that has pitted farmers against outdoor enthusiasts. Within days, though, the Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA) once again sided with opponents of the trail, the latest development in a long running land-use battle. Voters have also elected a new county commissioner who could change the dynamic going forward.

“We keep winning baby steps,” said farmer Scott Bernards, who said he has been vocal against the proposed trail for well over a decade. “I think if we saw no hope, we’d quit. But we keep seeing hope.”

The route of the proposed multi-use transportation corridor (Friends of the Yamhelas Westsider Trail)

The county, along with trail advocates and some wine country business owners wants to turn what used to be a railroad corridor into a paved path connecting Carlton, Yamhill, Cove Orchard and Gaston. Dozens of farmers and other community members have been trying to stop the project, arguing it cuts through farmland and threatens their livelihoods. The conflict has been the subject of several LUBA decisions during the past two years.

Yamhill County Chair Casey Kulla, a farmer himself, said the conflict has put him in an awkward position among agricultural peers, but he believes providing access to recreational opportunities is one of the county’s most important jobs after health and safety.

“For people who are in a small town … they have a very limited ability to move in the world except on the roads of Yamhill County which, frankly, they’re not built for the safety of pedestrians,” Kulla said. “So I look forward to trails like this and also you know safe biking lanes being part of the future of the county.”

Kulla and commissioner Rick Olson voted to approve the trail in a meeting May 28. Commissioner Mary Starret voted against it.

“I think that a trail is a good idea, but I don’t think this is the right place for it,” Starret said during the meeting, echoing one of the chief complaints of the 40-some farmers and citizens opposing the trail.

Farmers are primarily worried about trespassers and limits on their ability to use pesticides. According to Bernards, Oregon law requires a 100-150 foot exclusion zone depending on the pesticide he’s spraying. If a bicyclist or pedestrian passes within that area, he said he is supposed to stop spraying.

Farmers rallied in Yamhill County against a multi-use trail, May 21, 2020 (KOIN)

“The county’s not listening,” Bernards said. “They say, ‘Oh, there’s no impact.’ That’s not true! There will be impacts.”

Kulla disagrees.

“When somebody says this transportation corridor having people walking on it will cause me to lose my farm, I don’t believe that because I know as a farmer that we are all very flexible and adaptable and innovative and resilient and strong and tough,” Kulla said.

Attorney: Bridge construction can’t resume

No trail construction has taken place yet, with the exception of a bridge crossing Stag Hollow Creek, just east of Yamhill. The bridge was a primary part of the argument brought before LUBA, after Ben VanDyke realized construction was happening right next to land he farms. A ruling from the agency in April halted construction temporarily. An attorney for the farmers told KOIN 6 News LUBA’s most recent decision, handed down yesterday, prohibits the county from resuming construction.

The bridge is now way behind schedule. The more than $560,000 contract stated it was supposed to be completed by May 1.

Monday evening, Yamhill County counsel said they are waiting to “see what the commissioners want to do” before responding to the decision.

The new snag probably won’t surprise commissioners. Before LUBA’s decision was announced, Kulla told KOIN 6 the county’s decision would likely be appealed.

“Any good land use opponent knows that there’s so many possible way to slow down a project,” he said.

Changing leadership

Scott Bernards and commissioner-elect Lindsay Berschauer as seen at the tractor rally May 21 (courtesy Scott Bernards)

The continuing conflict surrounding the trail is credited, at least in part, for the election of Lindsay Berschauer as Yamhill County’s next commissioner. She will replace Olson on the three-person board of commissioners, taking office in January 2021. Olson voted in favor of the trail, but Berschauer tells KOIN 6 News she has opposed the trail from the beginning.

“I will not vote to approve any part of the trail going forward, and frankly I think it’s offensive how the county has tried to circumvent land use requirements in order to shove this project forward. It’s offensive to taxpayers and farmers,” Berschauer wrote. “We deserve better.”

While VanDyke and Bernards see her election as another win for farmers, their efforts in the legal realm have come at a high cost: Bernards estimates the group has spent about $100,000 fighting the trail so far.

“We feel that our way of life is worth it,” Bernards said, adding that it has also strained relationships in the small community. “A lot of those supporters are friends of mine. It’s been very divisive, I think it’s been very divisive for our community too. It’s sad.”

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