Ten counties in Eastern Oregon could authorize up to 50 acres of industrial development outside urban growth boundaries under a bill approved 26-2 by the Senate on Feb. 21.
Senate Bill 2, which is intended to spur economic development in Baker, Gilliam, Grant, Harney, Lake, Malheur, Sherman, Union, Wallowa and Wheeler counties, will now be considered by the House.
Under the proposal, the “industrial uses or other employment uses” could occur on up to 10 sites that aren’t located on high-value farmland or sage grouse habitat.
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said that many lawmakers have repeatedly tried to make such changes to Oregon’s land use laws without success.
“This effort itself took years and to be frank with you, I am surprised we were able to break through,” he said.
The proposal was crafted with the help of the Oregon Farm Bureau and the 1,000 Friends of Oregon conservation group, neither of which are opposed to the bill, said Bill Hansell, R-Athena.
Hansell noted that a similar land use approach has been used in Washington state to spur development in rural counties, so Oregon is not “reinventing the wheel” but rather adapting it to the state’s needs.
Though 50 acres per county is “modest” compared to the tens of millions of acres in Eastern Oregon, “the impact of this bill could be enormous,” said Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario.
Bentz said that agricultural mechanization has led to larger farms in Eastern Oregon, helping to deplete the rural population.
“Where there used to be 15 or 20 families, there is now one,” he said.
Over the past 12 years, the industrial acreage surrounding Ontario has surged from about 70 acres to about 1,000 acres, though companies and people have not “flocked in” to those areas, Bentz said.
Senate Bill 2 may “sadly” yield a similar result but the proposal does offer hope to the 10 Eastern Oregon counties, he said.
“This bill will hopefully slow the erosion of people from this incredibly beautiful and valuable part of our state,” Bentz said.