Oregon’s Land Use Program on a Slippery Slope

Bills would promote special interests

More than 50 years ago it was evident to those concerned about the loss of Oregon’s farm and forestland, natural areas and open space that the “fire at Eden’s gate” would become a conflagration without statewide protective measures in place.

Senate Bill 100, an enlightened governor and the state land use program he brought to fruition established land use regulation unique to Oregon, a model for the nation and a fire-line against the blaze occurring in the state south of us and heading our way.

For the most part, Oregon’s system of land use goals and comprehensive plans has served it well. But development pressures, manipulations and compromises were in play from the program’s inception. As people continued to pour into the state, development interests and the political influence to enable them proliferated as well. As the fire grew hotter, the rules and regulations serving as a firewall began to crumble.

Oregon’s farmlands and forestlands are now growing guesthouses, accessory dwellings, wedding venues, template dwellings, schools, churches, golf courses and other invasive species. Two recent bills, HB 3384 and 3024, passed by the Democratic majority in the state House, and now being deliberated in a Senate committee, would further the conglomeration.

HB 3384 seeks the expansion of a non-conforming use — Oak Hill School near Lane Community College — on land zoned exclusive farm use (EFU). This school, on property once owned by Ed King of King Estate and attended by his children, was approved in the EFU zone in 1994 as a conversion of a single-family dwelling. Then it was fast-tracked by staff to help the school obtain a building permit before the adoption of a rule that may have inhibited its conversion.

The school has been allowed to continue as a non-conforming use — a use not normally allowed in the zone — since 2009, and the property and development, together assessed at close to $4.5 million, are paying no taxes. In exchange for these generous concessions came a certain responsibility: The school could not become more non-conforming by expanding uses and activities inappropriate in the farm zone and could not cross the divide between urban and rural.

Notwithstanding, Oak Hill expanded in 2012. Now it wants to expand again and is asking the Legislature to nullify two court decisions that the proposed expansion violates state law, first by the Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA) and then by the state Court of Appeals, agreeing with LandWatch Lane County, a nonprofit dedicated to the protection of Lane County’s rural lands.

Passing HB 3384 will not only promote a special interest that has lost twice in the court system, it will also corrupt the intent of the non-conforming use provision to protect our resource land and set a precedent by erasing the jurisdictional line that separates the powers of state government. That’s a long way down a slippery slope from the original promise of Oregon’s land use program.

In 2016 Kay King, member of a wealthy logging family, applied for a permit to replace three dwellings that had been demolished by the applicant 22 years ago on one tax lot zoned exclusive farm use (EFU). A statute enacted in 2013 reasonably allows farmers to replace dilapidated farm dwellings on which they’ve been paying taxes for the last five years. No taxes, however, had been paid on the King dwellings since they were demolished, and there was no indication that the new ones would be associated with farm operations. In a recent decision the Oregon Supreme Court affirmed LandWatch Lane County’s appeal to retain the existing regulation.

While that decision was pending, King found a freshman state representative from Redmond, heavily supported by timber and other extractive industries, to sponsor HB 3024 that would overturn the Supreme Court decision. If successful, this would give King what she wants and establish legislation that would allow more houses on farmland regardless of when they may have been removed in the past, whether taxes have been paid and whether they are associated with farm practices.

In other words, acceding to this proposal, clearly motivated by callous self-interest, will simply add more fuel to the fire that little by little, lot by lot, has been consuming our farms, forests and natural areas and, with them, our sense of place.

Even for the experts — and few legislators, if any, are likely to be expert — land use law is difficult to comprehend, but the consequences of ignorance, misunderstanding or development bias are plain for any eye to see: the sprawling urbanization of our rural landscape.

Ironically, now we must consider that the landmark land use program promoted and passionately defended by Republican Gov. Tom McCall almost 50 years ago will be weakened by Democratic super-majorities in Oregon’s House and Senate with the passage of two bills catering to just the sort of political corruption McCall stood our ground to defy.

Robert Emmons is president of LandWatch Lane County, a nonprofit committed to the protection of Lane County’s farms, forests, natural areas and open spaces

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