OREGON CITY — 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. He employs about 35 people.
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 still is 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."