County OKs farmers in the Dell

Couple's Hazel Dell farm is both loved and scorned, but it's legal

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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photoGerry LaDuke Owns small farm on Hazel Dell Avenue

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You'd never guess the happy yellow FRESH EGGS sign on Hazel Dell Avenue could be sitting on such controversy.

But the little urban farm of Gerry and Nancy LaDuke -- a beloved local draw for neighbors with children -- has drawn some bitter complaints about smell, animals getting loose and unpermitted use of public property as a livestock yard.

On Thursday, though, Clark County said LaDuke can keep farming his own land and doesn't need to move his animals off an adjacent county parcel. It remains to be seen whether neighbors will respond with a slew of new complaints.

"The pigs are just awful. You can smell the pig crap. It's the first thing I smell when I wake up in the morn

ing and walk out my door," said Tony Sears, who lives around the corner to the south. Sears said he has all but abandoned his back yard -- and that his cul de sac abandoned plans for an outdoor July 4 barbecue -- thanks to the stench. "It gets really rancid over here when it gets hot," he said.

"The smell of manure is overpowering, and I believe this property to be of a nuisance to the neighborhood," Mark Bippes, next door to the LaDukes on the north, wrote to commissioner Steve Stuart on Aug. 22.

That was after Clark County Public Health responded to two previous Bippes complaints with courtesy notices -- noting the objections but finding that the LaDuke farm had not broken any health code.

"While odors and flies were observed, no public health violations were noted," Melissa Sutton of the Environmental Public Health office wrote to the LaDukes on July 1. Sutton encouraged them, in boilerplate language, to use best practices and file a plan regarding livestock care and waste management.

Gerry LaDuke said he's already filed such a plan voluntarily, and that he's always sinking money into improving his operation -- which consists of 117 chickens, seven geese, 36 ducks, 13 turkeys, an alpaca and 10 "little feeder pigs," he said.

Even with all that, no general nuisance case is ongoing against the LaDuke property, according to Kevin Pridemore, Clark County's code enforcement coordinator. Pridemore said animal control took one complaint about chickens in the street, but no violation was found there, either. LaDuke insisted that his chickens may get out of their pen and wander about, but have never been in the street.

Clark County code permits "the protection and preservation of urban livestock within urban growth areas of the county," according to section 40.260.235. "Agricultural uses, including livestock use, are allowed in all zoning districts in the county; nothing in this section precludes those uses; provided, that livestock uses subject to this section shall employ best management practices."

At this point, Clark County Public Works spokesman Jeff Mize said, the county doesn't have a beef with the LaDuke farm.

"Everyone has a right to farm in any county zone," he said.

Informal deal

LaDuke said he informed his neighbors and the county early on that he planned to start an animal farm on his 0.71-acre property at 11309 N.E. Hazel Dell Ave., which contains a small barn. The barn, built in 1946, is why he bought the place, he said, adding that neighbors who don't like his farm "shouldn't be next to a barn."

But that starts a chicken-and-egg puzzle. Neighbors who have lived here longer than the LaDukes say the place didn't smell terrible until the pigs came along. "I've been here 13 years," Sears said. "We didn't move to the area thinking there'd be a farm here. Otherwise we would have moved somewhere else. We didn't move to the pig farm, the pig farm moved to us."

Adjacent to the LaDuke property, to the south, is a vacant 0.70-acre county parcel. LaDuke said he got "verbal permission" from Pam Mason, in the county's real property office, to run his animals on that parcel -- which was purchased and razed in 2003, reportedly with plans to put a drainage bioswale on it if and when Hazel Dell Avenue is ever widened.

LaDuke said county maintenance of that vacant property was lacking when he and Nancy moved in next door, in January 2011. Neighbor Cindy Stieber agreed: "Until Garry and Nancy got here it was weeds and garbage," she said. Now LaDuke maintains and mows the space as part of his farm -- and lets his animals run there.

So LaDuke was shocked to receive a phone call from Mason in the county real property office on Aug. 26 -- days after Bippes' complaint to Stuart -- saying that the LaDukes must vacate the county space. LaDuke said he'd long been trying, and failing, to get Mason's written permission to use that space. Now he figures Mason must be "caught in the middle."

The Columbian called Mason and got a response from public works spokesman Mize, who confirmed the informal agreement with LaDuke. "There has essentially been a verbal agreement that he could run his animals on the county property," Mize said. "There is precedent for leasing county land to private individuals for livestock purposes.

"That said, we realize the best way to resolve this situation is with an actual lease. I think that's where the county is headed now," Mize said.

By law, such a lease must charge fair-market value for the parcel -- "but market rents for a vacant parcel may not be very high, and it may be offset by Mr. LaDuke's maintenance work," Mize said. "He's out there mowing and maintaining the property for us. If we did not have Mr. LaDuke doing this, the county and the public would be incurring additional costs."

Bottom line, Mize said, is that the LaDukes can keep using that vacant parcel. "There is no requirement that Mr. LaDuke remove his animals. There was some initial discussion of that, but since then the situation has become very clear. No one is telling him to get his animals off the county land," Mize said.

"We should have had a formal arrangement with Mr. LaDuke and we did not. He slipped through the cracks. We will remedy that," Mize said.

Area nuisance?

But Bippes believes that this friendly deal with the county is only facilitating a neighborhood nuisance -- because it provides LaDuke enough spillover space to make room for smelly pigs.

"I am obviously frustrated that he has right to a property I pay taxes on. I feel I have no rights. … I believe that if he were not able to use the county's property to contain the other hoofed animals, he would not be breeding pigs in the barn. I believe he is being enabled to do this by using the county's property," Bippes wrote.

LaDuke retorted: "He makes it sound like his own dollars are being wasted on this, but we are mowing it and maintaining it. It's in better shape than it used to be when the county did nothing with it."

If LaDuke ever does have to move his animals off the county's neighboring parcel, he said, that'll mean a denser concentration on his own land -- and nearer to Bippes. Even if the county does want some of its land for a bioswale, the LaDukes wonder if it would be willing to sell the rest of it for their animal yard.

"We're trying to do something nice, and we don't want to be a disturbance to anybody," Nancy said. "For a while the smell did get really overpowering, but we are doing our best to be good neighbors."

"I am constantly trying to make improvements," LaDuke said.

He reeled off a list of the urban-farming classes and workshops he has taken and the efforts he has made to keep down the smell.

Mize said county code is "quite clear" on handling complaints about livestock problems: If there are "substantiated complaints from two separate households," mediation is required. "In this case, I'm not aware that mediation has occurred," he said. "We encourage mediation."

The code says mediation may result in a livestock management plan being required. Only the livestock owner's failure to comply with his or her own livestock management plan constitutes a nuisance violation.

Anger and joy

It's hard to say if there's more support or resentment of the "Farmers in the Dell," as the LaDukes like to call themselves. Their Facebook page is populated mostly by supporters -- but there are some who disagree.

"The smell the farm creates makes me ill," one neighbor posted. "Have to close up the house and pay $$$ to run the a/c. What about that financial loss?"

And yet, Clark County appears to have fielded few official and "substantiated" complaints about the place. As of Thursday afternoon, an online petition in support of the LaDukes -- at http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/farmersinthedell -- had collected 59 signatures (though several names on the petition are duplicates, and many more are "anonymous"). When The Columbian visited earlier this week, a series of moms with kids stopped by to visit the animals and voice their support.

"We get our eggs here," said Angie Wason, who was visiting with her three young children. "We like to come over here a lot for mini-field trips."

"It is an asset to the community," said Cindy Stieber, who lives around the corner and has raised a goat with her children at his place; she sang the LaDukes' praises. She added that as an officer with the Sacajawea Elementary School Parent-Teacher Association, she knows that the school supports and enjoys the farm. The overgrown trees on the county parcel that used to produce junk now yield luscious plums and other fruits, she said. "And we love hearing a rooster crowing in the morning," Stieber said.

"I've been coming here for three years, and every time I come to see the animals it brings me joy," said Stieber family friend Jaida Jones, 10.

That's the main point of Farmers in the Dell, said LaDuke, who also works swing shift at the Farwest Steel plant on Lower River Road.

"A whole lot of the public really enjoys this," he said. "A huge part of why we do this is for the community. We ain't getting rich on it, that's for sure. You can see the happiness in kids' faces. Then you see the parents looking at the kids' faces and seeing that happiness. This is really for them."

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits