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Oregon land use law turns 40

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Articles - September 2013
Monday, August 19, 2013
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Oregon land use law turns 40
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0913 LandFutures 03
New legislation in Oregon allows for expanded use of agritourism and other commercial activities in vineyards and other agriculturally zoned areas.

If the property-rights movement has experienced ups and downs, so too has the housing industry, which is perhaps most affected by growth boundaries. Oregon’s population was just 2.4 million in 1973 when Senate Bill 100 passed but reached 3.9 million in 2012. As planners have sought to limit growth-boundary expansions and promote high-density housing, “we’ve done a really good job of saying what we don’t want: sprawl,” says Jon Chandler of the Oregon Home Builders Association. “But we’ve done a bad job of saying what we do want.”

Chandler believes there is a disconnect between “what we want and how it is on the ground. It’s one thing to target an area around transit nodes for high-density condos and apartments,” he says, but particularly outside Portland the market isn’t always ready for it. “It doesn’t matter what the planning calls for if we can’t finance, build and sell it. The real-estate market has regulations from lenders, expectations from customers; it is driven by profit. Planners often get ahead of the market. If I build something that won’t sell, I’m not going to build it twice.”

Chandler is not out to eradicate growth boundaries altogether and turn Oregon’s urban areas into sprawling cities like Houston or Atlanta. Rather, he believes the sprawl threat has been overstated. “The majority of the state’s population is on 2% or 3% of the state’s land mass,” he says. “In terms of farmland preservation, you could double or triple the size of every city and you wouldn’t strongly impact it.”

Successful land-use policy, however, is not just a matter of either-or — of preserved farmlands or expanded growth boundaries. To the agriculture industry, which includes wineries, there is increasing interest in allowing farm and vineyard lands to engage in direct sales. “There’s a lot of interest,” says the Oregon Farm Bureau’s Katie Fast.

As vineyards and a range of other crops have made Oregon a world-renowned food-and-drink destination, lawmakers in Salem have continued to introduce legislation designed to expand the kinds of events allowed. Passed in 2011, Senate Bill 960, for example, expanded allowance for agri-tourism and other commercial activities in agriculturally zoned areas. House Bill 280, passed in 2011, as well as this year’s Senate Bill 841, also expanded wineries’ ability to operate tasting rooms and host events.

“I think that’s going to be the discussion: making sure we protect the agriculture land base and infrastructure that’s needed, but that there’s a reasonable flexibility to allow folks to bring people out in agriculture tourism in a way that doesn’t imperil other farms,” Fast explains. “The difficulty is in finding that balance.”

In 1973 Oregon business was dominated by forestry and agriculture. Today the economy is more diverse, but land-use critics cite the difficulty of finding proper land for businesses like heavy industry. Business groups have argued for years that the state needs more readily available large industrial lots for big employers. But politics and competing desires for the land often make that difficult.

Over the past decade, for example, owners of the Langdon Farms Golf Club just south of Wilsonville, Chris and Tom Maletis, have tried to turn their acreage adjacent to the course into industrial land, for which there is a statewide shortage. Their property has the easy transit access industry prefers, not only the adjacent I-5 but an expanding Aurora Airport, and co-owner Chris Maletis recalls receiving letters of support from entities like the Port of Portland. But with opposition from residents and environmentalists to extending Wilsonville south of the Willamette River, the property was placed by Clackamas County into rural instead of urban reserves, part of the system created by Senate Bill 1011 in 2011 to increase long-range planning to a 50-year window.

“Our property is the poster child of what’s wrong with the system,” Maletis says. “They made a 50-year decision without even looking at the [industrial land] shortage and what lands are the most viable to take care of the needs of the region.”

In other parts of the state, though, the legislature has crafted specific legislation to streamline industrial land development. In the 2013 legislature, Senate Bill 845 would have cleared the path for a proposed 330-acre plot in North Hillsboro. That measure never advanced out of committee, but last year Senate Bill 1544 passed, enabling Deschutes, Jefferson and Crook counties to partner on a large-lot industrial site in Redmond. Proponents worked with 1000 Friends of Oregon, which threatened legal action, on a compromise allowing passage.

“I think the profession should be looking at ways to make Oregon’s planning more dynamic, emphasizing regional solutions instead of a one-size-fits-all land-use planning system,” says Peter Gutowsky, principal planner for Deschutes County. “These narrowly crafted projects provide examples of how the Oregon land-use program can be malleable.”

Last year the governor also signed Executive Order 12-07 allowing Jackson, Josephine and Douglas counties to create a pilot program permitting these jurisdictions to create regional variation on what constitutes farm and forest lands. As the viability of different lands change, these counties will have greater flexibility in changing zoning.



 

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