Daily Astorian

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill Wednesday that would allow Oregon State University greater flexibility to manage -- and eventually move -- its agricultural research and extension center in Hermiston.

As it stands, OSU is not allowed to use the 290-acre property on South First Street for anything other than agricultural research. That's because the federal government still holds what is called a reversionary interest in the land, dating back to when it was first conveyed to the state in 1954.

If any portion of the station is used for anything other than agricultural projects, the whole property would return under federal ownership, according to the rule. That puts university and city officials in a bind, should they decide to relocate the station outside city limits in order to accommodate further development.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon, introduced H.R. 3366, or the Hermiston Reversionary Lands Act, to do away with the federal interest and place the property entirely under local control. The measure passed with unanimous support in the House.

"This common-sense plan is a win for farming and jobs," Walden said. "By repealing an antiquated federal rule, this bill provides an opportunity to grow Hermiston's economy while allowing the flexibility needed for valuable local agricultural research to continue."

The Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center was annexed into the city last year, and station director Phil Hamm said continued expansion will eventually require the station to move to a more rural location to serve the region's agricultural economy.

OSU figures show the Hermiston stations supports nearly 500,000 acres of irrigated agriculture. It has helped convert 30,000 acres to high-value crop production in Umatilla and Morrow counties, totaling $50 million in economic return.

Hermiston's population was fewer than 4,000 residents when the property was first conveyed 60 years ago. It has since grown to more than 17,000 to become the largest city in Eastern Oregon.

"Ultimately, the growth of Hermiston will come south and the property the station sits on will need to be houses," Hamm said.

The station has no immediate plans to move, Hamm said. Any sale of the property could be 20-plus years down the road, but removing the federal reversionary interest gives them the ability to have that conversation when the time is right.

Hermiston Mayor Dave Drotzmann, City Manager Ed Brookshier and Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock have also expressed their support for H.R. 3366.

The bill now heads to the Senate, where Oregon Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley had previously co-sponsored similar legislation. With time ticking away on the congressional session, Walden said he hopes the Senate will take up the bill and pass it right away.

"There are a lot of things that could be available to OSU once this becomes law," Walden said. "It really allows them more say in how the facility is managed moving forward."

Contact George Plaven at gplaven@eastoregonian.com or 541-564-4547.

This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.

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