Millersburg ‘land swap’ brings development questions to fore

More than 50 people attended a land use hearing held Tuesday, Jan. 24, before the Linn County Board of Commissioners at the Linn County Expo Center in Albany.

The issue involved a comprehensive plan map amendment sought by the city of Millersburg to remove 167.46 acres from its urban growth boundary and replace it with 162.89. Approval would affect five properties.

Commissioners Roger Nyquist, Sherrie Sprenger and Will Tucker listened to opinions in favor and opposition and also received written comments during the 90-minute hearing.

They then approved accepting written comments at the Linn County Planning & Building Department (room 114, 300 SW Fourth Ave., Albany) until 5 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 7, at which point proponents and opponents would have two weeks to respond. The public hearing would then reconvene with a decision anticipated at 10 a.m. Tuesday, March 7, at the Expo Center.

The property the city wishes to move into the county is zoned as farmland and considered high-quality. However, for decades it was used to capture treated water from the former International Paper mill. The city hopes to use the land – which would be sold by its current owner – for proposed industrial development, which would be valued at up to $200 million and employ up to 90 people. In time, it could be valued at up to $1 billion and provide close to 1,000 family-wage jobs.

City representatives said the project met state land use laws, adding that this was the issue’s fourth public hearing. They also said that Millersburg was formed intentionally as a place of industry, and that the area of land in question was within 1970s road-development plans.

Mayor Scott Cowan called it a “land swap, not a land takeover. It will stimulate future economic growth and create jobs.”

Attorney Alan Sorem for the city noted that Oregon land use laws did not address the fact the properties were not “equal” in terms of farmland quality.

“It’s not what the criteria says,” he said.

Commissioner Nyquist expressed concern that the city hadn’t sent hearing announcements to the proposed lands’ neighbors. He was told that the meetings were noticed in legal newspaper public notices, per code.

Several people – including neighboring farmers – spoke in opposition to the proposal, describing the land as high-quality farmland that shouldn’t be “traded” for lesser ground with numerous trees and wetlands. Paul Kuehne, who owned the property to be moved into the UGB, supported the effort.

“This is creeping into the neighborhood,” said Tim Hubert, a 56-year resident of the Dever-Conner area. “It is not a fair exchange, and I don’t want to be collateral damage.”

In written comments, neighboring farmer Skip Gray said his property bordered the land in question, adding that his family once owned the property.

Records indicated that it supported 51 different crops over the years, from vegetables to flower seeds. He said the former International Paper property, filled with ravines and brush, was prone to flooding.

The other farmland was a hazelnut orchard.

“I submit it is an irresponsible action to swap these parcels and I question the legality of it,” he wrote.

Paul Harcombe, representing 1,000 Friends of Oregon and Friends of Linn County, said that Millersburg hadn’t proven a serious need for the transaction, noting in written comments, “The UGB swap constitutes an unwarranted expansion of the urban growth boundary onto a tiled and irrigated 163-acre tract of world-class agricultural land.”

– Alex Paul, Linn County Communications Officer