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Potential financial, legal effects of ballot measure spelled out

A ballot measure that would ban the growing of genetically modified organisms could cost Jackson County $219,000 a year to enforce and could affect things such as residential lawns and medical marijuana, County Administrator Danny Jordan said.

If Measure 15-119 is approved by voters on May 20, field clean-up costs could rise higher than enforcement costs, Jordan told the Jackson County Board of Commissioners during a Wednesday meeting.

Removing soil containing seeds and plant roots, dumping it in a landfill and buying new topsoil for a 20-acre field could cost $1.7 million to $2.2 million, he said.

Alternately, the soil could be chemically fumigated and heated at a cost of $15,000 per acre, or $300,000 for a 20-acre field, Jordan said.

The ballot language allows Jackson County to recover costs from violators who grow genetically modified plants, but only if they do so knowingly and willingly, he said.

A violator who had to pay clean-up costs might have to sell off his or her land — and still not make enough money to repay the county.

The market value for farmland is $500 to $2,000 per acre, or $10,000 to $40,000 for 20 acres, according to county figures.

Rural residential land, which allows for house construction, is valued at approximately $20,000 per acre, or $400,000 for 20 acres, according to the county.

Under the measure, growing medical marijuana and certain types of grass could be banned, because seeds from common strains of both are genetically modified, Jordan said.

Marijuana growers often soak seeds in a carcinogenic derivative of crocus bulbs to double the DNA, which in turn doubles or quadruples the production of THC, the chemical that causes the high in users, Jordan said.

"This method produces the highest potency marijuana varieties and the seeds commonly sold by online vendors," Jordan said during a PowerPoint presentation to the commissioners.

A common Scotts brand lawn seed is genetically modified to protect it from Roundup weed killer, he said.

Enforcing the measure would be problematic because the county does not have the means to test plants and would have to use an independent contractor to meet a requirement that abatement of GMOs "minimize genetic contamination or other harm," Jordan said.

Jordan said the county's enforcement of the measure would be difficult because of its "undefined terms and vague terminology."

"In order to enforce the proposed ordinance, the county is going to have to make policy/legal judgments on the various terms that are not defined, increasing the risk of litigation," Jordan said.

Jordan said the ordinance contains conflicting language on judicial remedies for violations and is not clear whether it pertains only to unincorporated areas of the county or includes cities, as well.

He said the county would not enforce the measure inside cities, where it has no jurisdiction.

The cost of enforcing Measure 15-119 would include the addition of a full-time code inspector, a hearings officer's time, a contractor for testing, as well as department overhead, materials, training and other staff time.

Elise Higley — director for Our Family Farms Coalition, which supports the measure — said she doesn't believe the measure targets plants that the average person can buy at a home-improvement store or nursery.

She said it's aimed at farmers who sign crop-growing agreements with major companies such as Syngenta, which sells genetically engineered seeds.

Higley said Our Family Farms Coalition has heard from other jurisdictions with GMO bans that enforcement costs are minimal.

She said she would have to look into Jordan's cost estimates for treating fields that have leftover roots and seeds from genetically modified plants.

Higley said the county might spend nothing on enforcement and abatement because the measure does not require the county to take action. It gives the county "the authority to enforce" the measure, along with discretion on whether to enforce it.

"We've already heard the opponents trying to scare people by claiming the Family Farms measure would have high enforcement costs, but this is pure political fiction," she said. "The county doesn't have an obligation to bring an enforcement action under any of its laws if it doesn't want to, and that's fine by us."

Most of the contamination danger to organic crops comes from genetically modified crops that are in their pollination stage. Pollen can drift on the wind or be carried by insects, Higley said.

"It's all about protecting the farmer who doesn't want to grow GMO," she said.

County Commissioner Don Skundrick emphasized that commissioners asked Jordan to research potential enforcement and abatement costs of the measure only to gather facts.

The information represents neither an argument in favor nor against the measure, he said.

"This is strictly neutral," Skundrick said.

County officials cleared Jordan's presentation in advance with state elections officials, who affirmed it wouldn't promote or oppose the measure.

Oregon law bars public employees from promoting or opposing measures while on the job.

Reach reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com.

Bob Pennell illustration - Bob Pennell illustration