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Small Town Dirt

Are Neighbors Conspiring To Trip-up Dwarf's Fantasy Farm?


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Matt Roloff is a fighter--or as he puts it, a "David in a Goliath world." He's the president of Little People of America (dedicated to assisting people faced with the challenges of dwarfism), he's been a successful computer systems designer, and has even starred as an Ewok in Return of the Jedi.

Now he's a little farmer with a big problem.

Fourteen years ago, he bought a small farm in rural Washington County, and began growing fruits, berries, pumpkins and Christmas trees. He also started building an assortment of eccentric play structures for "personal use."

These structures are a bizarre assortment, including a Wild West town, mining tunnels, a covered picnic area, a pirate ship (complete with lagoon), and a tree house that would make Robinson Crusoe blush. There's even a giant concrete medieval castle.

True to his entrepreneurial spirit, Roloff soon envisioned combining his humble "U-Pick" peach farm and play structures into Helvetia Family Adventures: a fantasy /adventure farm-stand of colossal proportions. Using Helvetia Family Adventures as an on-site, fee-based marketing gimmick, Roloff believes he can sell more produce by offering a fun place for people to spend the day.

It's a beautiful idea, with just one problem; according to Roloff, there's an angry mob of neighbors jealous of his success and scheming to undermine his goals.


Roloff's neighbors think he's gone too far. At first, they considered his projects to be eccentric, but kind of cute. Several even helped out by donating recycled materials and labor for his whimsical constructs. Then came the dirt.

Late last year, he brought a huge pile of dirt onto his land in order to raise Christmas trees. The neighbors didn't like it, and decided to make a stink. An angry petition committee was formed, and they took their stink to the county, where they leveled a barrage of complaints, ranging from building code violations, water quality issues and zoning violations, to accusations that the dirt trucks created hazardous traffic conditions and raised the dust levels in their homes. They also complained about his Wild West town, his pirate ship, and among other things, the recently added 20-foot Tower of Terror.

One irate neighbor, Glenn Grossen, told the Board of Commissioners he believed Roloff "had probably broken every land use law there is," but offered no hard evidence. He also testified that his wife was "very unhappy about the mud on her clean car," and that the situation had escalated to the point where he was "tempted to become a vigilante."

"They're picking on every little thing I do," Roloff accuses, staring out from behind a mound of permits and documents in his home office. From his perspective, it's costing thousands of dollars to prove his compliance, and the county's recent stop order has left Roloff's expansion plans temporarily dead in the water. And its all thanks to his nosy neighbors.


Roloff considers himself a "direct marketing farmer" who is only trying to turn a profit. "I still work outside the home to bring in revenue," he says, "but all my revenue gets plowed back into my farm."

After analyzing laws regarding promotion of his farm, Roloff concluded it was well within his rights to create an expanded "farm-stand"; a place where visitors could buy fresh produce, while experiencing the farm first-hand through promotional tours and special events.

Being from the high tech industry, Roloff was inspired by the concept of offering promotional corporate tours, which in turn provide premium customers. "If these companies visit and each employee gets, say, a jar of jam that has our phone number and web page information, they may come back later to buy peaches, pumpkins, or Christmas trees," he says.


Alan Rappleyea, Senior Assistant Counsel for Washington County, says he first got wind of Matt Roloff in April of 2000, when neighbors alerted him to the various structures, many of which were already completed. Building inspectors were sent out to see if Roloff's permits were up to snuff.

"You can build a big barn on farmland with no building permits, because that's going to have agricultural purposes. But these things [pirate ship, medieval castle, Tower of Terror, etc.] are a little different. We sat down with [Roloff], and said we need building permits for life safety issues. We don't want these things collapsing and hurting people." Rappleyea says Roloff didn't think he needed building permits, because the items weren't for public use.

Roloff asserts that land-use law allows farmers to "use tours and other means to promote Oregon farms and rural tourism (as long as the profits don't exceed 25% of what they earn from farming)." So naturally, he wants to include the bizarre structures as part of the experience, and charge people to come play. Neighbors disagree, saying fee-based farm parties are illegal, and so is his little "Knott's Berry Farm."

Roloff contends that his endeavors are welcomed by the Visitors Association and the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce. "They want us to help promote people coming into town, and increase livability," he says. "But I can't do it because Washington County's got something up their ass.

"The law says you can charge a fee to have an activity that promotes your farm. So why does Washington County want to stop me? Someone needs to figure that out."


Roloff's neighbors treasure their seclusion and worry his enterprise will upset their reclusive lifestyle. Roloff insists his way will ensure that the farming lifestyle will last. Unprofitable farms go broke, and farmers are often forced to sell their acreage to developers. He also thinks his neighbors are more than a little jealous that his methods work.

While Roloff claims many of his neighbors are barely breaking even by growing hay grass, he can make $10,000 an acre profit just growing pumpkins. "Pumpkin seeds are cheap! $200 can seed an acre. You put $200 in--you pull ten grand out! Do that a couple times over and things are looking pretty good! So that's the game. But the dirt busted it."


"We're a complaint-driven system," admits Rappleyea. "We don't go out with binoculars looking for people with rusty cars in their backyards. People file complaint forms, and we follow up on them."

"Everything I do is legal," Roloff counters, pressing his small hands into the mountain of documents on his desk. "They're constantly trying to get somebody, some agency, to come pick on us."

"You hear all the crap about the schools not having any money? Well, why is Oregon chasing down a farming midget... when they could be funding schools?"

Rappleyea denies Roloff's charges. "We're not treating him any different than anyone else who's building a giant amusement park around here."


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