In 1854, Bernard McPhillips drove a herd of cattle from California to Oregon, eventually becoming a leading farmer in McMinnville. His son started the US Bank of McMinnville and cofounded First Federal Savings and Loan. His grandson, Ramsey’s grandfather, pioneered Oregon’s model environmental system, serving under nine governors as a member of the State Sanitary Authority and then as the first chairman of the Environmental Quality Commission. Among many gifts to the city and state, the family donated its beachfront property—a little stretch now known as Cape Kiwanda State Park.
Ramsey intended to carry the family banner by taking on stewardship of the farm upon his grandfather’s passing. Until then, he hopscotched around the world, living what amounted to a Kerouac novel—from stints as a mounted ranger and performance artist in New York, to cultivating Hollywood celebrities’ gardens as a self-described “hortivangelist,” to amassing an array of big-name art world friends. (Pink Martini bandleader Thomas Lauderdale has organized a number of anti-Riverbend fundraising concerts.) But all his paths, McPhillips says, led back home: “This was just preparation for McMinnville.”
When his grandfather died in 1991, he returned with the intention of starting a horticultural school. Instead, he discovered that the small-town dump next door, run by his grandfather’s friends, had been bought by a national company and was growing into a regional landfill that accepted garbage from the Portland area and coastal towns. The change at Riverbend and other small garbage dumps grew out of a new federal regulation adopted in 1991 known as Subtitle D, which strongly tightened environmental standards and pushed many small landfills to become regional operations in order to afford required upgrades.
A year later, McPhillips’s neighbor, Lillian Frease, spearheaded an anti-landfill ballot initiative to prohibit landfills within 500 feet of a floodway and limit the importation of trash from beyond Yamhill County. It won by a 2-to-1 margin. But the landfill’s owner, Sanifill, and Yamhill County successfully appealed to the courts that the ballot measure violated interstate commerce laws. McPhillips went back on the road, deferring his future school until the landfill’s slated close in 2014.
Waste Management Inc, a publicly traded, Houston-based corporation, acquired Riverbend in 1998, and in 2008 applied to double its footprint from 85 acres to 172 and increase the height of its hill of trash from 140 to well over 250 feet—about the 18-story height of the iconically remodeled Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building in downtown Portland. McPhillips and Frease quickly drafted a new initiative (written by incoming Portland city commissioner Steve Novick) to prevent the expansion of Riverbend and, this time, to ban any new landfills within 2,000 feet of a floodplain.
“We eliminated the commerce laws and went back to what won, assuming it would win again,” he recalls. But Waste Management wasn’t Sanifill, and McPhillips and Frease were hardly prepared for the titan they’d just awoken with a spitball.
Waste Management took the two to court four times over the placement of a comma in the initiative. The litigation cut the campaign’s available time to gather several thousand signatures necessary to qualify for the ballot from several months to two weeks, but McPhillips and Frease succeeded. Then Waste Management hired a leading Salem corporate lobbyist, set up a political action committee called Neighbors Against Higher Garbage Bills, and bankrolled a barrage of ads, commercials, and mailers. Among the claims: “local ‘hortivangelist’ Ramsey McPhillips” wanted to shut down Riverbend, which would “significantly increase garbage bills for ... residents and businesses.” Quoting a Willamette Week profile, the mailers portrayed McPhillips as an elite Portland-raised globe-trotter with no link to Yamhill County. A number of people complained to the local paper, the Yamhill Valley News-Register, about so-called “push-polls,” a political tactic that involves calling voters and asking them loaded questions to shape the results. A Linfield College professor told the paper that “he eventually hung up in anger because ‘they clearly were trying to push me to a position that I did not hold.’”
“It was an endless blitz of misinformation that polarized the county so much,” says McMinnville city councilor Kevin Jeffries, recalling that some ads predicted rates would more than double, despite legal limits on increases. “It freaked out businesses, thinking their trash rates were going to go up.”
The initiative went before voters on November 4, 2008—and plummeted to defeat by a 60/40 margin. Waste Management’s PAC raised almost a million dollars (and spent about $6 per voter) for its campaign, according to Oregon’s Elections Division. “Waste Management has the deepest pockets you can imagine,” says Ilsa Perse, a local land use advocate and gallery owner who joined McPhillips to collect signatures. “We don’t have a PR firm messaging for us, and consequently we don’t always do the best job.”
Waste Management, according to Jackie Lang, the company’s communications director for Oregon, saw the “resounding rejection” of the measure as “the kind of majority that sends a strong message.”
But for McPhillips, the loss, however lopsided, signaled the beginnings of a movement. “That initiative beat the bushes,” he says, “and everybody came out.”