Clackamas lavender business in a zoning limbo

OREGON CITY, Ore. — No one wants the Oregon Lavender Farm to move or go out of business.

Owner Jim Dierking has state legislators, county commissioners, neighbors and fellow farmers on his side. Yet, years after a land-use complaint was filed against the farm with Clackamas County, he is stuck between a Legislature that claims the county should help him and a county that says only a state fix is possible. And neither side wants to set a precedent that could erode the state’s landmark agriculture protections.

An anonymous complaint claimed Dierking is violating the state-defined exclusive farm use zoning by importing, exporting, storing and distributing his essential oils and extracts. However, Dierking says he couldn’t afford to grow 40 acres of lavender and other herbs on his 90-acre property without Liberty Natural Products.

“The international business supports the local business,” he said.

Dierking bought the farm in 1999, more than a decade after he bought Liberty Natural Products from a friend. The farm used to be an eyesore, neighbors say. Manure stacked up on the slightly rolling fields when they housed an egg farm. Then, it was a rabbit farm. The next owner used the land for cockfighting, manufacture of illicit drugs and other questionably legal activities, according to neighbors and county officials. Now, the fields turn purple in the spring, and hundreds of people descend on the well-manicured lawn for Dierking’s annual Oregon Lavender Festival.

Dierking employs about 35 people, some of whom sit in an open administrative office that used to be the drying room for rabbit pelts. “It’s like going from an Old West time that’s been abandoned 50 years to going to a place where all the pickets are painted white,” Dierking said.

Dierking is violating the zoning restrictions for exclusive farm use land. Besides growing Oregon Tilth organic-certified lavender, he renovated the 150,000 square feet of buildings that were on the farm for use distilling the lavender, creating essential oils and extracts and storing and shipping herbs, extracts and oils that are both his own and those imported from across the globe. The buildings were built before Oregon’s land use law existed. Instead of razing the buildings, he turned them into a future winery, a working kitchen to experiment with his products and a warehousing facility that smells like an aromatherapy laboratory.

“We have worked on it nonstop, and we are still working on it,” Dierking said.

Dierking says Liberty Natural Products is steadily becoming one of the largest suppliers of obscure plants and oils in the world. The county could allow his commercial business to operate on the land with a conditional use permit, but Clackamas County Planning Director Mike McCallister said that applies only for regional transactions, not international trade.

Rep. Bill Kennemer, R-Oregon City, toured the farm in 2004 when he served as a Clackamas County commissioner and has watched it flourish since then.

“I remember I came home and told my wife, `You know this man has great plans for this horrible derelict farm.’ And you know I grew up on farms, and I said I don’t know how he has a prayer of turning this thing around,” Kennemer said. “He didn’t just turn it around, he put it on a whole new level.”

Kennemer sponsored a bill that to amend the land use law to allow Liberty Natural Products to remain part of Oregon Lavender Farm.

State legislators chose not to advance the bill, partly because some think a local solution is still viable. 1000 Friends of Oregon, a land-use advocacy group, and the Oregon Farm Bureau both opposed the bill, saying that the matter should be fixed locally, not by changing the state’s land use law to benefit one company.

If the county issued a conditional use permit, it could be tested at the state level through the state Land Use Board of Appeals.

Rep. Brent Barton, D-Clackamas County, who sits on the small business task force where the bill died, said the Legislature should get involved if the county’s permit was overturned but not before local options are tried. “No one wants to shut this thing down. Everyone’s on the same page here,” Barton said. “It’s just a question of how we get there.”

Kennemer plans to bring the matter up again in the special session. He said he sympathizes with the fear that granting an exception could lead to more widespread weakening of state land-use protections but is confident his bill is drawn so narrowly that only the lavender farm would benefit. “I don’t think that it could apply specifically to any other project in the state of Oregon,” Kennemer said.

In the meantime, the county is working with Dierking on other solutions. As long as Dierking is working toward a solution, the county is not required to punish him.

John Ludlow, chairman of the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners, wrote a letter in support of Kennemer’s bill. He said that once other avenues are exhausted, perhaps lawmakers will be more open to a legislative solution.

“It’s kind of sad that it’s come to this,” Ludlow said. “We like vital business and successful businesses, that’s for sure. … “Where could somebody do what he’s doing in the city? You just can’t do it.”

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