A land use fight is shaping up in Southern Oregon’s Douglas County that pits the broader interests of agriculture against the interests of urban developers — and perhaps the interests of specific land owners who might want to sell.
Douglas County commissioners are considering changing the designation of nearly 35,000 acres in farm and forest zones to “non-resource transitional lands.” That would allow up to 2,300 20-acre home sites to be carved out of land now reserved for agriculture and timber harvests.
According to the county, the sites are of low quality for commercial farm production and taken together represent only about 1 percent of farm and forestland in the county.
They speculate that no more than half the lots would ever be developed.
The county contends that current zoning doesn’t support the demand for “rural lifestyle” dwellings.
It’s unclear who is clamoring for these types of properties, but it’s a safe bet there would be demand from wealthy retirees and out-of-towners looking for vacation properties to take advantage of the area’s good weather and scenic beauty.
Not so fast. State land use regulators and farmland preservation advocates are concerned by the proposal.
Advocates at 1,000 Friends of Oregon say the county hasn’t proven the need for more rural housing stock and is pulling a fast one by misapplying authority it’s granted under Oregon’s land use laws to meet its objectives.
Oregon’s Department of Land Conservation and Development shares some of the group’s concerns.
As in many of these land use issues, we are conflicted.
We have always maintained that private property owners should generally be allowed to use their land for the purpose that provides the highest return. For an owner, land suited for only marginal crop production might well be worth more as a sizable plot for a “rural lifestyle” dwelling.
At the same time, we know that once truly productive farmland is used for something other than farming, the soil is often lost forever to agricultural production. Significant loss of production leads to a loss of infrastructure that supports farming — storage, processing, packing, transportation. And that hurts farmers with otherwise viable operations.
We haven’t heard much from the people who own the land, which is scattered around the various cities in the county. That could explain the county’s low estimate of just how much of this land could ever go on the block.
Willing buyers need willing sellers.
Indications are good that this dispute will end up with the state Land Use Board of Appeals.
We’d like to know, on a plot-by-plot basis, the true productive potential of the land. Is any of it improperly categorized?
That question is moot if the county is exceeding its authority.
Anyone hoping to pull up stakes in favor of a prime “rural lifestyle” dwelling — perhaps someday here in Eastern Oregon — will have to wait for these issues to be resolved.