State Rep. Peter Buckley is uneasy about a bill he's crafting that could help struggling fruit growers such as Harry & David open up 1,000 acres to potential development, but would tamper with Oregon's land-use laws protecting farmland.
"I am very conflicted," said the Ashland Democrat and head of the powerful Joint Ways and Means Committee. "The main concern is trying to keep Harry & David solvent."
Buckley said his chances of getting a bill through the Legislature are slim, but he feels the future of the pear industry in Jackson County is at stake.
Harry & David, Associated Fruit and Naumes want the Legislature to create a special designation for some agricultural lands near urban areas that would give cities the option to use those lands for expansion under certain circumstances.
By giving the orchardists the potential of turning agricultural land into residential, it would increase the value of these assets, which in turn would give the companies greater flexibility in raising capital to sustain their struggling operations.
"We need it for two purposes — to get debt down to a manageable level and so the bank doesn't show up and foreclose on us," said Dave Lowry of Associated Fruit.
He said bankers are concerned that interest payments are reaching a point where it will be difficult for his company to pay them with current profits. Lowry said if a bad frost hits at the wrong time this spring, it could push his company over the edge.
Lowry and other local orchardists say Oregon's land-use laws are designed to protect farmland. However, orchardists historically have sold off high-value land near urban areas as they purchase additional properties in outlying areas, he said.
Lowry said the proposed legislation would not conflict with the Regional Problem Solving process, which is trying to determine how cities should grow to accommodate a doubling of the population in 50 years.
Greg Holmes of 1000 Friends of Oregon said his organization opposes the proposed bill.
He said some of the parcels orchardists want to include in urban boundaries were considered as part of the Regional Problem Solving process.
The 10-year RPS process eventually excluded these parcels, determining that some of them were a critical part of the region's economic base, Holmes said.
"I think it absolutely usurps the idea of RPS," he said.
Just because an orchardist goes out of business doesn't mean another agricultural operation won't buy the lands in question, he said.
"If it's worth saving, somebody will pick them up," he said. "It doesn't mean the end to agriculture."
Bill Williams, president and chief executive officer of Harry & David, said selling off agricultural land next to urban areas has been a healthy part of the pear industry for more than 100 years.
For example, in the past 10 years his company sold off a 35-acre parcel in Central Point for a truck stop, netting about $3 million, then plowed the money back into two orchards, one at North Foothill and Vilas roads and another off Modoc Road near TouVelle State Park.
With 3,000 acres total, Harry & David has about 1,000 acres that are fallow, some of it close to residential areas.
"We don't need 3,000 acres of orchard land," he said.
Some of the orchards are surrounded on three sides by urban encroachment, which make them practically useless, he said.
"We need the flexibility to sell this land," he said.
Given the current economy, Williams said it is unlikely Harry & David would find any buyers in the short term, but the potential increase in value of these properties through this proposed legislation would improve the company's portfolio and give it more ability to raise capital.
He said his company pumps millions into the local economy and employs 7,000 full-time and seasonal workers.
Brent Thompson of Friends of Jackson County doesn't buy the fruit growers' claims that they need to raise money to survive.
"Balderdash," he said. "It's just a scam so they can make money out of the whole deal."
Thompson said the idea is to bend Oregon's land-use laws to bail out orchardists in Jackson County.
Buckley said he is convinced the economy has had a detrimental effect on these companies, which is why he is considering a bill that conflicts with his usual high regard for land-use laws.
But he said he will not push any law that would conflict with the RPS process, so he's working with the Department of Land Conservation and Development for guidance.
He said he's received assurances from orchardists that they can grow high-quality pears in other parts of the valley and generate higher yields.
As part of any bill, Buckley said he would require that at least 50 percent of the proceeds from the sale of these lands go back into agricultural development and not just debt repayment.
Another requirement he would have is that 1000 Friends and other land-use watchdog groups would have to be at the table to get this bill passed.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476, or e-mail email@example.com.