August 27, 2002 11:00 pm

By Gary Fletcher

Observer Staff Writer

ENTERPRISE — "You stirred up a hornets' nest" was a description of why more than 100 people filled the Wallowa County courtroom for a public hearing Tuesday night on proposed changes in exclusive farm use rules.

Verbal testimony was eventually closed, no major decisions were made by the Wallowa County Planning Commission and the crowd left. Citizens still have seven days to submit letters to the planning office.

At issue was the county's Jan. 27 adoption of House Bill 3326, passed by the 2001 Legislature. It allows exclusive farm use property to be split into three parcels as long as one remains at least 160 acres. The new law opens the door for many additional houses to be built in rural areas.

There are 1,000 EFU parcels of more than 160 acres in the county. Theoretically, 2,000 new homes could go into farming areas for the first time in more than 20 years.

Applications for six such permits were to be considered Tuesday. Those hearings were continued until next month.

For Tuesday's hearing, planning department staff had drafted proposed design standards for any new non-farm homes in the EFU. The staff's goal was to comply with the county's land use plan, which says "the rural character and open space activities of agricultural uses will be protected to preserve the scenic attractiveness and living conditions desirable to farm families and other county residents."

The question was which approach Wallowa County should take. Union and Grant counties do not allow non-farm partitions. At the other extreme are counties that allow non-farm partitions with no standards required. In between are counties that allow non-farm partitions with strict standards, such as those intended to protect the Columbia Gorge.

Many letters were received both for and against non-farm home standards, said County Planner Bill Oliver.

Two dozen people spoke to that issue. Most seemed opposed to design standards such as requiring certain colors, building materials and expensive underground utilities.

Several, like Norman Lovell of Imnaha, said that over the years they had seen too many changes that didn't make good sense.

A 73-year-old man said that his farm is the only thing he has left. If he can sell two parcels, the revenue would allow him to retire on his farm, rather than be forced to sell the whole thing to people who could then "make a killing" selling it.

Others said that children are forced to leave the area to make a living. Parents want to pass the farm to the next generation.

Fourth-generation farmers along with real estate agents, building construction people and a banker showed up to oppose restrictions on new non-farm dwellings. Some made accusations of paranoia, takings and fascism.

Once the sentiments were expressed, there appeared to be some consensus of wisely imposing the least restrictions such as fire-retardant roofing. One person's wood fire could ignite his roof and then his neighbor's, said Planning Commissioner Jim Stonebrink.

Several said that a person should be able to build what he wants wherever he wants on his own land.

New buildings are the only way to increase property taxes, Russ Ruonavaara said.

"Houses are the best thing we can grow. We need to be farming these trophy homes," said John Hillock of Enterprise Electric.

Two people said that their dwellings could be considered trophy homes. John Gorsline said that he doesn't look down on others in a negative way, and that neighbors have been positive about how beautiful his home is.

Commissioner Judy Willis said she hates the term "trophy house." Leon Werdinger, however, thought it was a good phrase that describes the real socioeconomic changes that come with them, like widening the income gap between classes.

He's seen those changes in communities, where a cadre of short-sighted economic self-interest was leading the charge.

What one does with his land can impact his neighbors, said Werdinger, one of four favoring some controls on non-farm dwellings in the EFU zone.

One cited a new white house on a hill that can be seen for miles. It has a road straight up the hill. She favored some scenic restrictions, and one for the grade of the road.

Another saw visual beauty as an asset, just like good soil. Another suggested that non-farm residences be clustered. She cited an Oregon State University study of Wallowa County and other counties. It showed conflicts between farmers and non-farm neighbors. She doesn't want to see tension between neighbors, and wants to preserve local custom and culture.

Where subdivisions drive up real estate values, it hamstrings the farming community, Gay Fregulia said.

She spoke in opposition to Dave and Darlene Turner's application to create four non-farm dwellings some 10 miles from Enterprise on Crow Creek Road.

There is not one non-farm parcel within the surrounding 36 square miles, Fregulia said. Making an exception would alter the stability of the land use pattern, she said.

That hearing, along with the Fitzhugh application for non-farm dwellings nearby, was continued.

The planning commission asked staff to draft findings in favor of the applications and to do a study to list and evaluate the parcels and buildings in the area.