Timber veterans struggle to navigate Oregon’s land use law and make forestry profitable
Mark Fritch talks fast and swears a lot, standing in ankle-deep snow in Government Camp. As he carries wooden pallets up icy stairs of the three-story log cabin he’s building there, he keeps talking about wanting justice.
Fritch, 63, faces possibly losing his business if the politicians who say they want to help him fail to find a solution to his zoning problem. He’s become an example of how small-time farmers or foresters who fall through a crack in Oregon’s complex land use law must spend a lot of money and time to find their way out.
Oregon’s landmark statewide zoning plan, created in 1973, did a good job of protecting farmland. But the law also made it harder for small-time operators such as Fritch to survive by expanding into related businesses. Forty years later, farmers and foresters who test the law by going beyond merely growing crops can find themselves in an expensive fight.
Conservation advocates such as 1000 Friends of Oregon say broad prohibitions are important to protect agricultural land. Small-business advocates say more flexibility would help farmers and foresters make that land more productive.
Oregon Sen. Chuck Thomsen, R-Hood River, is trying to build support for independent business owners such as Fritch, who runs one of the few remaining timber processing operations in Clackamas County, employing three to five young men on a 5-acre site in Sandy.
Fritch builds luxury log homes. He starts by processing raw logs and assembling them to assure a good fit on timber resource zoned land, which allows “primary forest processing.” He then takes the fitted logs and beams to the construction site and builds the home on location. When neighbors filed anonymous land-use complaints against Fritch, maintaining that pre-assembly made him a builder rather than a processor, it threatened to put him out of business.
The Clackamas County commissioners support Fritch’s operation, but so far, that hasn’t been enough. Fritch has spent more than $40,000 fighting the complaint, and the issue still isn’t resolved.
Ironically, the land-use laws threatening Fritch’s business were intended in part to protect family farm and timber operations.