POLK COUNTY -- Local farmers and neighbors of the Meduri Farms fruit processing plant on Dyck Road faced off at a Feb. 11 land use hearing.
The hearing, before Polk County Hearings Officer Bob Oliver, is the latest chapter in a land use battle over the facility that has continued since 1999.
Fruit has been dried at the Meduri Farms location for almost a century. Joe Meduri bought the facility in 1993 and soon started expanding it.
When one of the older buildings burned down, in April 2001, Meduri replaced it with a larger building in a different location.
He also replaced three small buildings with one much larger one and a small shop building. The new buildings are nearly three times larger than the three old ones.
In Feb. 2002, the Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA) ruled that such an expansion, previously approved by Polk County, required a public land use hearing.
Meduri then withdrew the original application and applied to have his entire farm and processing operation approved with conditions.
Four supporters and around a dozen opponents argued at the hearing whether or not Meduri Farms places an undue burden or cost on neighboring farms with its practices. In addition to drying fruits, Meduri also infuses them with sugar and fruit concentrates, packs them, and sprays the waste water on its land.
Supporters, including Polk County farmers, said Meduri Farms provides a vital service to local fruit growers.
County staff found Meduri's operations can occur with conditions in a farm use zone. "This use is clearly allowed under county and state law," said Planning Director Jim Allen.
Oliver must also answer a more subjective question -- whether Meduri Farms is "in harmony with the purpose and intent of the zone."
The purpose of the farm zone, according to Polk County's zoning law, is "to conserve agricultural lands."
Opponents argued Meduri Farms is an industrial, not agricultural operation. They accused Meduri of abusing the farm land as a front to dump industrial waste rather than treat it.
The state Department of Environmental Quality has twice fined Meduri for polluting the nearby Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge. Last September, a federal magistrate ruled that improvements to Meduri's water system have since made such pollution problems "extremely unlikely."
County Associate Planner Austin McGuigan said the main question Oliver has to decide is whether Meduri Farms makes it harder or more expensive to farm. "Someone would have to clearly link impacts from the processing facility to their farm use and the cost of their farm use," he said.
"So far, that hasn't been demonstrated."
Oliver kept the record open for written rebuttal and response until March 25. Meduri has until April 8 to submit a final response.