Kerry and Deborah Downs have a nice little spread out in Powell Butte, growing 80 acres of hay. Kerry Downs says the farm grosses about $20,000 a year.
But Downs, who pitches stocks in Bend when he’s not wearing overalls and pitching hay down on the farm, would like to make more. He wants permission from Deschutes County to host as many as six weddings a year in his barn, for about $2,000 per.
It won’t be the first time Downs has tried that route for making a bit of cash on the side. County staff have been working with Downs for several years to bring them into compliance with the county and state land use laws that prohibit mass gatherings on land that has been zoned for exclusively for farming.
And the Downs farm wasn’t the only one. Weddings and other commercial events became so frequent and disruptive in areas like Tumalo that neighbors fought for, and got, a crackdown on them. In the aftermath of that controversy the state legislature rewrote the law to allow non-farm events, subject to county approval, as long as they’re related to and secondary to the farm’s primary use – i.e., farming.
County staff has recommended approval of the Downs application, accepting the rationale that Downs uses the weddings to help market his hay. That’s a stretch that would challenge the most advanced yoga practitioner.
But Downs and Oregonians In Action, a “property rights” advocacy group that’s supporting his application, want the rules stretched even more. Up to now the county and the state Department of Land Conservation and Development have held that non-farm events can account for no more than 25% of a farm’s revenue. Downs and OIA want that increased to 50%.
OIA has never made it any secret that it hates Oregon’s land use laws and would love to get rid of them. And one of those laws it hates the most is the prohibition of development in areas zoned for exclusive farm use.
If the county commission okays the Downs application, it will be driving the thin edge of what could turn out to be a very broad wedge into that law. If a wedding is an acceptable non-farm use, why not a monster truck rally? Or how about a rock concert?
And if it’s okay for commercial events to make up 50% of the farm’s income, why not 60% or 70%? Before long, as Paul Dewey of Central Oregon LandWatch put it, “the exception swallows the rule.”
Farmers have a hard time getting by these days, and there’s nothing wrong with letting them hold occasional commercial events – provided they’re really farm-related and they don’t replace farming as the main activity. But that doesn’t mean the county should let every hobby farmer and martini rancher hold any kind of event that he thinks will make a few bucks.
Approving the Downs application would be taking the first step down a slippery slope. The county commissioners need to give it THE BOOT.