Comments on life from a random dude who isn't pigeon holed.
Wednesday, June 2, 2010
Blurring the urban-rural line in Damascus
DAMASCUS -- Larry Thompson has always been ahead of everybody else.
He stopped using pesticides and fungicides on his fruit, berries and vegetables years before organic became iconic, and long ago eliminated the middleman distributor by selling direct at his fruit stands and at seven farmers markets.
His harvest crew, including three generations of what began as a migrant family, has been documented, paying taxes and earning Social Security since 1986. He donated the use of 3.5 acres to Mercy Corps Northwest, which teaches Russian and Cuban immigrants how to farm Oregon-style.
He earns ovations at land-use conferences, gladly consorts with government planners and won a Western region sustainability award at the 2008 New American Farm conference. At 55, he's trim and shrewd in a cowboy hat and big Chevy pickup truck.
But not even Larry Thompson has grown a city before, and his ideas this time would turn Oregon's heralded land-use system on its head.
The region's growth regulators seeded the new city of Damascus on Thompson's 77-acre farm. In Thompson's vision, the city can be a place where urban development and agriculture entwine like his graceful marionberry canes.
Part of the farm could be developed for housing, he suggests, while he continues to farm the better soil. The farm's crops could supply an "eco-restaurant" at the top slope of the property. Along the road below could be a fruit and produce stand. Next to it could be a community kitchen and education center where customers could preserve the berries they just bought or learn how to improve their home gardens.
Thompson acknowledges the idea "steps way out of bounds."
Because if it's done nothing else, Oregon has drawn a bright line between urban and rural. Development occurs within tight growth boundaries; farming and forestry happen out in the country. Period.
Thompson says it's time to blur those lines.
"Instead of saying, 'Here's the boundary for growth,' maybe we should start with the farm first and create the community around farms," he says. "That's my intent."
Metro, the regional government, planted Damascus on the edge of Portland in what many now see as a confounding expansion of the urban growth boundary. A lack of infrastructure -- adequate sewer, water and roads -- made traditional development severely expensive, and Damascus became the punchline to the area's development joke.
Seeking to control their destiny, residents of the rolling hills incorporated in 2004, but the subsequent recession and collapse of the housing market have left Damascus virtually unchanged. Anita Yap, community development director, describes it as "10,000 acres and 10,000 people." The view from Thompson's pumpkin patch contains no highways or high-rises.
Before incorporation, the one institution many Damascus residents had in common was the Boring Fire District. Five school districts and two water districts serve the area. City offices are in the area's lone commercial center, an abbreviated strip mall along Oregon 212 that includes a Bi-Mart, Safeway, hair salon and other businesses.
"City hall?" A man waiting in an insurance office 50 yards away has to think on it. "I hear they have one now," he offers.
But stalled development has given Damascus time to imagine itself, and in every discussion residents made it clear they value the area's farms and fruit stands, including Thompson's.
At the same time, the Portland metro area embraced the value of a regional "foodshed" and of slow food. And more: the security of growing and eating locally, and the climate change problems exacerbated by transporting products and traveling to stores. Farmers' markets have exploded in popularity, backyard chicken coops and gardens are increasingly common and small-acreage farms sell veggies to subscribers.
Thompson acknowledges that his first thought when Damascus became a city was, "I'm rich. Wow, I've finally made it. I could develop my land and retire and be wealthy."
His second thought was, "This is my heritage. It's a lot bigger than Larry Thompson."
His parents, Victor and Betty, arrived from South Dakota in 1947 and proceeded to "raise strawberries and kids." Thompson, the youngest of four children, is the only one to farm full-time. He says it is what he was meant to do.
Farming is important to society, he says. It feeds people, yes, but it also sustains something we have difficulty naming. Something emotional; connection with the agrarian roots from which most Americans are still just two or three generations removed. It is the green space we take our children to see.
Oregon farming is a $5 billion annual business, employing more than 50,000 workers on farms and 19,000 in food processing plants. It thrives even as the state's population jumps and urbanizes; fast-growing Clackamas and Washington counties ranked fourth and fifth in crop sales value, and Multnomah County is in the state's top 15.
Growth boundaries, required of every city, have allowed agriculture to hang on by separating it. But along the urban fringe, farms are elbow to elbow with new residents who often don't understand or appreciate dust, long hours and machinery noise.
"High-density apartments on one side, and the other side is combines," as Clackamas County Commissioner Charlotte Lehan puts it.
"Oregon land use is very dichotomous," she says. "You're either urban or rural -- urban with 10 houses per acre or rural with one house per 80 acres. I'm coming to the opinion that maybe we need to recognize another kind of animal which is neither fish nor fowl."
That describes Thompson's idea.
"All the people are on the bandwagon saying they want to save farms, but the way to do that is to make sure farms are making money," he says. "This is a way to do that while you develop an area."
Thompson is an able spokesman for urban agriculture. He befriends a neighboring subdivision by letting residents freely walk his property, favors U-pickers because it reconnects them with farm life, and tells anyone listening that making a good living goes arm in arm with being a responsible caretaker of the land.
Thompson has an important ally in Yap, the Damascus community development director. Although Damascus can't zone Thompson's land as Exclusive Farm Use, it may be able to treat it as industrial land or open space, zone it residential with an "agricultural overlay" that allows continued farming, or call it "land-based employment" property.
Oregon's land-use system has protected agriculture well for 30 years, "But this is a new city," Yap says. "Land-use law doesn't talk about climate change and peak oil" and doesn't address agriculture in terms of food security, community identity and economic development, she says.
In an article for this summer's edition of Oregon Planners' Journal, Yap and co-author Dean Apostol said Damascus is Oregon's first new city in 22 years and the first to be pre-planned. As such, it may be allowed to "test the edges" of the state's land-use system.
"We may be testing state assumptions by using various tools to set aside land for continued use for growing food and integrating active farming and the agricultural heritage into urbanization," they wrote.
Development groups and state and regional policymakers, are keenly interested in what Damascus is up to.
Damascus is proposing to treat agriculture as an urban economic activity similar to commercial or industrial development, says Jim Johnson, land-use coordinator for the state Department of Agriculture. "In some ways, what Damascus is doing is recognizing the obvious," he says.
But he's concerned that reserving acreage for farming within the urban growth boundary will cause development groups to seek expansion of the boundary as compensation -- and bump farther into farmland.
Johnson also cautions that what works for Larry Thompson, known as one of the region's most innovative and progressive farmers, might not work for others.
"What happens when Larry leaves?" Johnson asks. "Will someone else want to farm in that (urban) environment? I don't know."
Thompson says he has no retirement or succession plans. He and his wife, Kathy, have two children: Michelle, a counselor, and Matt, a student at the University of Oregon. Matt Thompson has expressed interest in farming, but it won't be forced upon him, Larry Thompson says. On the other hand, a successful venture with Damascus might make the farm attractive to a buyer who would continue the operation.
Metro Councilor Rod Park of Gresham, himself a farmer on the UGB fringe, says the success of urban agriculture may depend on its scale. Nearby residents would have to remember that "Farming is a verb, not a noun," Park says.
The Damascus concept may be doable, "Given where people are at right now with concern about where their food is coming from," he says.
Jon Chandler of the Oregon Homebuilders Association says the Damascus idea sounds like a thoughtful approach, but says the region should question whether farming is the best use of land within the urban growth boundary.
The current system promotes the most effective placement of roads, sewer and other infrastructure, says Greg Manning, vice president of the Oregon chapter of NAIOP, a commercial real estate development association.
"When you break that up with intermittent, alternative uses it can reduce the efficiency of land use and infrastructure use," Manning says. "Do we have three subdivisions, 400 acres of farmland, then a shopping mall?"
Portland land-use lawyer Ed Sullivan says state law may make it difficult for Damascus to set land aside for farming. State statute, based on an Oregon Court of Appeals decision, says land within the growth boundary must be urban or "urbanizable."
"I wouldn't bet the farm on it, to coin a phrase," he says. "I can't say categorically that they would never make it, but I think this is a hard row to hoe."
Damascus is proceeding with the conditional blessing of Richard Whitman, director of the state Department of Land Conservation and Development.
"I'm not prepared to say it can't be done under Oregon law," Whitman says. "I think there are ways to do it. I think we should be able to accommodate that within the system."
But Damascus has an obligation to Metro to take on its share of the region's population and job growth, Whitman says. If land within the city is reserved for farming, the tradeoff is that some neighborhoods may have to be developed more densely, he says. It would be "problematic" if urban agriculture was used as an excuse for expanding the growth boundary, Whitman says.
Larry Thompson believes Oregon has reached the point where it can open the gates now separating the people who eat his pumpkins, corn, zucchini and berries from the land that produces it.
"It would be a reason to move to Damascus," Thompson says. "Our identity was lost when the UGB came and we incorporated. We went from a pastoral setting to, 'Now what?' "