For the past three years, I’ve been privileged to work with farmers and residents of Grand Island dedicated to protecting their quiet community and rural way of life. An island on the Willamette River near Dayton, Oregon, Grand Island is home to farmsteads, fruit orchards, a pumpkin patch, a state park and picnic area, and a vibrant community. Visitors can bicycle around the quiet roads, visit farms and explore the river banks. If it sounds like a little Oregon paradise, I’d say that’s because it is.
In contrast to this agricultural haven, a gravel mining company is proposing to open a pit mine at the upstream end of the island. The island floods on a regular basis, given its location in the river, and island residents worry that the stagnant pond left after mining will alter flood patterns and interfere with domestic and irrigation wells. They also worry that mining will cover their most sensitive crops like berries and pears in dust, increasing their costs of production, and that the constant flow of truck traffic to and from the mine will discourage visitors to the island. Despite these concerns, Yamhill County approved the mine plan.
Last summer, we took this challenge to the Land Use Board of Appeals, where Summer Associate Maura Fahey argued the case as a certified law student. Thanks to our clients’ dedication and the hard work of Maura and Crag staff, we won a remand of the decision–the county would have to go back, correct its decision, and take another look at the application. The applicant pressed forward, and Yamhill County renewed its approval of the mining project in December of last year. Although the county and the applicant may have been satisfied that they were able to correct the problems identified by LUBA, our clients were not. We filed a new appeal and last week I went to Salem to argue the case for our clients.
There’s something very satisfying about preparing for and presenting oral argument in court. As environmental attorneys, we do a lot of writing. We present much of our work through papers filed with the courts. And although we are litigators, we do not get into court very often. When we do get to present arguments to a judge in person, it is often the culmination of months of work. After refining arguments over time, the oral presentation is the opportunity to be the expert, to help the judge understand the facts and the nuances of the argument, and to try to finally convince him or her of your case. In law school, this terrified me. But I quickly realized that presenting argument to the court is a privilege, and the better prepared you are, the more fun it is. Last week’s argument was very rewarding in this sense, and I was proud to show my expertise on behalf of our dedicated clients.
So far, over three years have passed that we’ve been able to help our clients keep the gravel in the ground, and the rich, fertile soil on the land. We’ll soon know the results of last week’s argument. No matter the outcome, we will continue to support our clients’ efforts to protect their community and their farms for future generations of Grand Island residents.