SALEM, Ore. (KOIN) — Neighbors are divided in one part of West Salem over a developer’s plan to turn a plot of undeveloped land into a hemp farm.
The 77-acre parcel sits at the west end of Glen Creek Road, inside city limits, but outside of the Urban Growth Boundary. It is zoned for farm use.
In early July, some neighbors took fliers door to door, stating that “the owners of a large tract of land that is within the city limits of Salem has been clearing land and drilling a commercial irrigation well for the establishment of a hemp growing operation.”
The flier claimed the proposal has caused “significant concern” in the community. “Use of valuable groundwater for irrigation in a limited groundwater area needed to support residential water wells, foul odors associated with hemp crops and potential security/safety issues are just a few of the neighborhood concerns,” it read.
Then, on July 15, more than 75 people attended the West Salem Neighborhood Association meeting, where the hemp farm was the last item on the agenda. That’s about three times the normal number of attendees, said Chris Wilhelm, secretary of the West Salem Neighborhood Association.
“It’s an interesting situation where many of the neighbors of the hemp farm aren’t residents of the City of Salem because they live outside the Urban Growth Boundary,” Wilhelm wrote in an email to KOIN 6. He says that means they can’t vote on any actions at the meeting. “They used the meeting as a way to organize and find someone to help lead and organize their efforts.”
That person is Tim Gerling, a retired civil engineer and the former public works director for the City of Salem.
He tells KOIN 6 the property is located in the Eola Hills Groundwater Limited Area, where the water comes from fractures in the basalt aquifer, which is only refilled by rain water. It’s not clear how much water there is, but the area is “classified for exempt uses, irrigation and rural residential fire protection systems only,” according to the Oregon Water Resources Department. “Permits may be issued … for drip or equally efficient irrigation provided the Director finds the proposed use and amount do not pose a threat to the groundwater resource or existing permit holders.”
Gerling said the property developer, Jerry Reeves, has been involved with the land since the mid 1990s, when he originally tried to build a subdivision, but wasn’t allowed to because the land was outside the UGB. Gerling said he feels for Reeves.
“The man’s entitled to use his property,” he said. But he’s worried about his well, and those of his neighbors. “If something happens to those wells, our homes become uninhabitable.”
Gerling said the group of neighbors are following the issue closely and “absolutely” plan to comment and appeal if the farm gets a permit.
While water rights are the main concern for most neighbors, others are worried about the smell of hemp, and potential traffic impacts.
Not in my backyard?
Most of the neighbors KOIN 6 News spoke with said they were in favor in hemp as a product and an industry, but that they’d rather not have it planted behind their homes.
Julia Brown, who has lived in the area for almost 15 years, walks her dog to the field regularly. She said she noticed they were clearing it, but didn’t know why until reading an article about the plans. Brown told KOIN 6 she isn’t anti-hemp, but she wants more information about how it may impact her quality of life.
“Are we talking about one week’s worth of smells, or a month?” she said. Water and potential pesticide use also had her worried. “It’s not the crop, it’s the impact of the crop, and West Salem is downstream from any potential runoff.”
Now, she has created a Facebook page to try to learn more about the farm, and share that information with others. She also spoke with Reeves, and said he spent about an hour answering her questions. Brown said he told her the farm would be 100% organic, which would mean no pesticides.
“If it turns out there’s no smell and no environmental impact, then I’m fine,” Brown said.
KOIN 6 News has repeatedly reached out to Reeves for comment.
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