Home News Local News When is a farm a farm?
When is a farm a farm?
By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
Baker City/County building inspector Larry Rockenbrant surveys his desk, littered with files for about 17 buildings he never inspected, but thinks he should have.
And might still have to.
Rockenbrant has not inspected the buildings because he didn't know the owners had decided, after visiting the county planning department, that the buildings were for agricultural uses and thus were exempt from structural inspections.
The problem, Rockenbrant believes, is that based on the Oregon law that defines agricultural buildings, many and maybe all of those 17 are not exempt.
It's a problem he said has cost his department thousands of dollars in potential inspection fees from the buildings.
And it's a problem that could end up costing the owners of those buildings more money than if they had applied for a building permit and scheduled the inspection, in the first place, Rockenbrant said.
Some might have to pay double the original fee, although Rockenbrant said he has not decided how to deal with such situations.
"What I don't like to do is go out and hammer on these people," he said. "It's hard enough being a building inspector.
"I'm still trying to figure out the best way to do it without making a whole lot of people upset."
Mark Bennett, who heads the county planning department, said he doesn't think Rockenbrant should worry.
Bennett said he's reviewed records from about 60 buildings constructed over the past few years, and found just two he thinks were "irregular."
And in those cases, Bennett said he believes the blame rests not on his department for wrongly allowing an exemption from inspections, but on the building owners for misrepresenting how they intended to use their structures.
In any case, Bennett said his department has corrected past problems related to agricultural building exemptions problems he said Rockenbrant did not mention until earlier this year.
"Once it was brought to our attention we got on it," Bennett said. "I have some concerns about what's behind this. It seems like someone has another agenda here, and it's not to bring the county and city closer."
What is an "ag exemption?"
Despite their differences in opinion, both Rockenbrant and Bennett agree that Oregon law does exempt certain farm buildings from structural inspections and permits.
(Those buildings might require electrical, plumbing and mechanical inspections, however.)
To qualify for the exemption, a building must meet two standards, Rockenbrant said.
o It must be located on a farm, as defined by the Oregon Structural Specialty Code.
Part of that definition states that a farm is "land used for the primary purpose of obtaining a profit in money by raising, harvesting and selling of crops or by the feeding, breeding, management and sale of, or produce of, livestock, poultry, fur-bearing animals or honeybees."
The county planning department includes the same definition on the affidavit it requires building owners to sign when they claim an agricultural exemption.
o The building must be used for agricultural purposes, such as storing farm machinery, supplies, or crops.
Homes are never exempt, nor are buildings "used by the public," according to state statute.
Rockenbrant acknowledges that the definitions are not as specific as he might like, and that some people might disagree with his decision that a particular building does not qualify for the exemption.
For example, a person who owns a horse and pastures it in his back yard doesn't automatically qualify if he wants to build a garage where he'll store the riding lawnmower he uses to cut the grass.
Yet Rockenbrant admits that the same person might well claim he's eligible for the exemption if, say, he also allows a neighbor to pasture a horse and bills the neighbor for the forage.
That conceivably could meet the state's "obtaining a profit" requirement for farms, though Rockenbrant points out that the scenario hardly achieves the "primary purpose" section of that same statute.
Property owners in gray area
One property owner who has been immersed in those definitions think they constitute a "big gray area."
Bruce Morrison lives in the Tri Cities, Wash., but is building a home and pole building on property he owns near Pocahontas Road. Morrision thought he qualified for an exemption for the pole building, based on the information he obtained from the county planning department.
But Rockenbrant said Morrison's five-acre parcel doesn't meet the state's definition of a farm.
Morrison said he ended up buying a building permit, although he said he still believes he qualified for the exemption.
"It seems like a little bit of a battle between the city and county, and I'm caught up in the middle of it," he said.
Still, Rockenbrant thinks that regardless of the definitions, the whole matter really comes down to common sense.
"To try to articulate what a farm is by definitions is extremely difficult," he said. "But we know a farm when we see it."
Of the 17 or so buildings whose records he has examined this year, Rockenbrant said that in his opinion the majority don't qualify for an exemption because they were built on land that fails the state's definition of a farm.
He said he knows some of the landowners involved, and that they are not farmers.
In the other cases, he said, the building itself is not an agricultural structure, and so would not qualify for the exemption even if built on a farm.
Bennett said he doesn't think Rockenbrant has the authority to decide which property is a farm and which is not. That's a function of zoning, which is the county's job, he said.
Rockenbrant agrees he has no authority over zoning.
But Rockenbrant said state law is clear on this issue: The local building official, not the county planning department, is responsible for deciding whether or not a building is exempt, he said.
Peggy Collins, chief of the Oregon Building Codes Division, confirmed that in a June 28 letter to Rockenbrant.
"The planning department may review the application and determine whether the proposed building is a permitted use in the zone and whether it meets local zoning requirements such as location and height," Collins wrote. "However, by state law, it is the building official that determines whether the building is exempt from structural permit."
But Rockenbrant said he's concerned that the county planning department, perhaps unintentionally, is convincing residents that they qualify for the exemption when, according to the law, they do not.
Rockenbrant said the county officials shouldn't even be talking with residents about the exemptions.
"To some degree they've been taking on more than they should," he said. "The county planning department shouldn't be expected to have to make those kinds of decisions.
"That's my responsibility, by statute."
Bennett agrees to a point.
He acknowledges that state law gives building officials the authority to approve agricultural exemptions.
But that doesn't mean the law prohibits any other official from at least discussing exemptions with builders or property owners, Bennett believes.
"I do not see the exclusivity of the building official," he said.
Still, Bennett said he has instituted changes in how his department deals with customers in order to alleviate anyone's concerns that the county encouraged someone to claim an illegal exemption.
In the past, Bennett said, county planning employees sometimes did advise residents about whether they qualified for the exemption for agricultural buildings.
Now, however, planning department workers simply give residents copies of the applicable statutes, he said.
"We're not telling them they need to or don't need to (apply for a permit with Rockenbrant)," Bennett said. "Now they'll make their own call."
The county's previous practice never was intended to circumvent state law, Bennett said.
The goal was and still is, Bennett said to offer a "one-stop shop" for people, to save them an unnecessary trip to Rockenbrant's office in the basement of Baker City Hall.
"We're always trying to make it easier for applicants, to keep it simple," Bennett said.
"Frankly, I'm somewhat surprised (Rockenbrant's concern) has come to the forefront," he said. "It's an issue we need to move on, and we are. But it's not like there was rampant illegal building.
"We are not attempting, nor have we ever, to violate the law or the statutes," Bennett said. "All we are attempting to do is streamline the process as much as possible."
Bennett said apparent differences in definitions also complicated the exemption issue in the past.
He said the planning department had been relying on criteria listed in state planning and zoning statutes, rather than the structural code sections Rockenbrant cites.
Due to the discrepancy between the two, "we could have led people to inadvertently feel they were qualified for an exemption," Bennett said.
He believes that dilemma is solved now, because Rockenbrant has drafted a flow chart applicants can follow to figure out whether they qualify for the exemption.
Rockenbrant said he understands Bennett's desire to simplify the building inspection procedure.
"Quite frankly, though, I think it's about as streamlined as it can be," he said.
Rockenbrant said he thinks the county planning department has "taken a very liberal view of what the agricultural (building) exemption is intended for."
Yet Bennett contends Rockenbrant is not responsible for determining whether or not a property is a farm.
That's a function of zoning, which is the county's job, Bennett said.
Rockenbrant agrees he has no authority over zoning.
But he said state law clearly states that it is his job to determine whether a property meets state standards for a farm, at least as the determination affects the legality of an agricultural exemption.
Making those decisions are not always easy, he said, nor are they always popular.
"I'm not here to debate the merits of the rules," Rockenbrant said. "I'm just here to interpret the rules and enforce them."