Opponents see Gorge farm plan as effort to ‘game the system’

Neighbor, conservationists see proposal as attempt to sidestep regulations meant to preserve Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

By Jake Thomas, Columbian staff writer

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WASHOUGAL — Greg Misarti said he’d be fine if his neighbors’ plan to start a farm actually resulted in a farm.

Misarti and his wife live on a 5-acre property outside of Washougal that’s in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, a 292,500-acre stretch in Oregon and Washington where land is subject to more restrictions that are meant to preserve the area’s scenic and agricultural character.

Just north of Misarti’s property, the owners of three parcels of land have indicated that they want to get into the business of raising Wagyu cows, which fetch high prices for their rich meat, and to sell their embryos. The three landowners also intend to build houses.

That has Misarti and conservation group Friends of the Columbia Gorge concerned that the plans for the farm are part of an attempt to sidestep regulations and build high-end housing in a way that will undermine the goals of the scenic area.

“It’s one of the most egregious attempts to game the system I’ve ever seen,” said Nathan Baker, senior staff attorney for Friends of the Columbia Gorge, which is challenging the project.

The three landowners could not be reached for comment, but LeAnne Bremer, a partner at Miller Nash Graham & Dunn LLP who is representing them, said the farm plans are legitimate.

“(Friends of the Columbia Gorge) can doubt that the business could work or its details, but that’s just all speculation at this point,” she said.

So far, the county agrees. In May, Clark County’s Department of Community Development issued a decision approving plans for building a single-family residence on 43 acres owned by Simon Shi-Ning Yang. The department approved a similar plan for 44 acres owned by Mei Sheng Zhou. A related application from Xia Jun Liu for a similar plan on an adjacent parcel is still pending.

Friends of the Columbia Gorge has appealed the county’s decisions for Yang and Zhou, which will go before the county hearing examiner on Thursday.

One farm or three?

Under the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act, passed by Congress into law in 1986, the six gorge counties were required to pass land-use ordinances intended to uphold the law’s preservation goals.

Michael Lang, conservation director for Friends of the Columbia Gorge, said that one of the goals of the law is to preserve the gorge’s agricultural economy, which he said would be undermined if the development goes forward.

In August, Friends of the Columbia Gorge filed briefs with the hearing examiner arguing that approved plans for land owned by Zhou and Yang would violate Clark County’s National Scenic Area ordinance.

Baker alleges that the landowners have engaged in a “shell game” to build houses, which would be larger than 4,000 square feet. Baker said Yang and Zhou are tech executives from China, according to his research, and Baker said it’s unlikely that they’re actually going to use the land primarily for agricultural pursuits as required by the ordinance.

“These are not farmers,” Baker said.

The briefs state that the parcels owned by the three landowners are a part of an 111-acre property, formerly known as Oak Hills Farm, that’s zoned for agriculture and contains barns and a manufactured home.

In 2014, Yang and Zhou purchased the property, according to the briefs. The farm consisted of three parcels. Yang and Zhou deeded parcels to themselves and another to Liu and his wife, according to the briefs.

In 2015, Liu submitted one land-use application to Community Development for all three parcels that included a proposal for three new houses. Friends of the Columbia Gorge, as well as the Columbia River Gorge Commission, a regional planning authority for the scenic area, sent letters to Community Development arguing that the land’s zoning allowed for only one dwelling for a single agricultural operation.

They argued that three new houses weren’t allowed because the three parcels constituted one agricultural operation.

Liu withdrew the application. Bremer submitted new separate land-use applications for each landowner to build a house on their parcel.

“They are (each) entitled to have a house on their property if they do it in conjunction with an agricultural use,” Bremer said. She explained that the initial land-use application was filed for all three parcels to cut down on fee costs.

But briefs filed by Friends of the Columbia Gorge argue the three parcels are still effectively one agricultural operation with only one “farm dwelling” allowed.

“All evidence shows it’s being used as one application,” Baker said.

The briefs argue that there is no fencing dividing the land, it’s hayed and grazed as one farm — and that application materials suggested the three landowners are working on one agricultural project sharing the same attorney.

Where’s the beef?

According to briefs from Friends of the Columbia Gorge, the county’s ordinances require that “the day-to-day activities” of one or more residents of the farm be directed to commercial farming activities that generate $40,000 in gross annual income.

The landowners intend to meet this threshold primarily by selling embryos from Wagyu cows, a Japanese breed of cattle known for their marbled meat that’s prized by high-end eateries.

George Owen, executive director of the American Wagyu Association, didn’t have exact numbers but said more producers are turning toward the sought-after beef.

Bremer said that her clients became interested after getting to know the owner of Wagyu ranch in Oregon. A business plan for one of the parcel’s projects states that in its third year of operations it will generate $64,000 alone in gross profit from sales of the embryos.

Jerry Reeves, a retired Washington State University animal sciences professor who owns a Wagyu beef ranch, said that selling embryos involves giving the cow fertility drugs that cause her to produce microscopic embryos that are flushed, collected and sold for $500 to $1,000 apiece. He said a cow should only be flushed three times a year, and a good one will produce 18 embryos.

“These are not farmers,” said Baker, who notes that the landowners appear to have no background in agriculture. In its appeal, Friends of the Columbia Gorge included testimony from agricultural economist Bruce Prenguber, who criticized the business plan’s lack of detail and overall viability.

But Bremer said that others have successfully gotten into agriculture despite not having backgrounds in it.

“The clients put together the best plan that they could and believe they are going to be successful,” he said.

McMansions vs. pastures

Baker said that if the houses — which he argues are already too large and not compatible with other nearby buildings — are built and it becomes clear they’re not being used for farming, the county could order them to set up a viable agricultural operation or tear them down. He said the latter option is particularly unlikely.

Misarti said his plans to start an art and ecology center on his property with his wife were stalled by scenic area regulations. He said it’s frustrating to see his neighbors’ project move forward.

“I don’t want to be looking at a McMansion when there should be a pasture,” he said.