Most Oregonians are aware of the potentially adverse effects of Measure 37 claims on agricultural land in the Willamette Valley if affected landowners proceed with developments incompatible with the neighbors' agricultural use. Most Oregonians have heard the story of Oregon's wine grape industry in Yamhill County, for example.
In the 1960s, Yamhill County commissioners declared the "death of agriculture" and rezoned much of the county's best agricultural land into five-acre "ranchettes." New state land-use laws in the early 1970s rezoned the land for exclusive agricultural use. Once future winegrowers were confident that incompatible uses would not interfere with the growing of wine grapes, vineyards were planted in record numbers - in Yamhill County and other parts of the state - and a new Oregon industry grew and prospered.
Now, Measure 37 threatens this industry by demanding "compensation" for a select group of landowners who must get taxpayer cash - and we all know there is none for this purpose - or be permitted the incompatible use, usually subdivisions, that was prohibited decades ago.
The Portland-centered nature of Oregon's news media, however, has limited Oregonians' awareness of some rather astounding Measure 37 claims by timber companies and other corporate landowners along the Oregon coast.
Plum Creek Timber's claim to waive restrictions on houses or condominiums on 32,000 acres of their timberlands scattered through Lincoln and Coos counties is just the tip of the iceberg. According to the Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition, corporate landowners are using Measure 37 claims to waive restrictions and open the way for condominium resorts or subdivisions on land zoned for other uses at Sand Lake in Tillamook County, on the bluffs adjoining Seal Rock State Park in Lincoln County, at Indian Point next to the South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve in Coos County, on the Sweet Ranch at the mouth of the Sixes River and the U.S. Borax property in Curry County.
The clock is ticking on the 180 days in which these claims must be paid - and there is no money for that purpose. Otherwise, decades-old restrictions must be waived and the right to develop becomes vested for the present owner, regardless of future action on Measure 37 by the Legislature or the voters.
The latest development in Measure 37 claims is the argument by some beachfront property owners that Measure 37 requires they be "compensated" for property they "lost" when the Legislature passed the Beach Bill in 1967. The Beach Bill guaranteed public access to Oregon beaches up to the vegetation line. Beachfront property owners argued some of their deeds claimed title down to the tide line.
The Oregon Supreme Court held that even if titles extended to the tide mark, the Oregon public had a "prescriptive right" to access the dry sand portions of the state's ocean beaches because they had been used as public highways since aboriginal times and by European-American settlers before there were roads.
There is a dirty little secret about nearly all these Measure 37 claims. It is hard to find anyone who has lost any real money. When the Legislature passed the Beach Bill in 1967, it ordered county assessors to eliminate taxes on beach front property from the mean tide line to the vegetation line where the public had access. The value of the remaining beach front property continued to rise. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when land was rezoned for exclusive agriculture use or timber production, the Legislature required county assessors to reduce assessments to reflect the restricted uses. Owners of that rezoned land - regardless of what they dreamed they might do in the future - paid taxes only on the restricted land use, not its speculative value. Protected from incompatible uses, the value of agricultural land grew steadily over the last three decades. Original owners who sold almost always got more than they paid for it. Timber landowners had an even better deal.
Property taxes on timber land are lower than on farmland and the severance tax on timber is not paid until the trees are cut. Almost no one has lost any real cash.
Measure 37's key provision - that landowners must be compensated for the loss of speculative value of land at the time they buy it if the original use is restricted - is simply not required by either the state or federal constitutions. It's the ideological fiction invented by the lawyers who wrote the deliberately vague Measure 37.
The legislature needs to extend or suspend the arbitrary deadline for considering Measure 37 claims. Then it should refer the original Measure 37 to the voters for their reconsideration now that its real purpose - returning Oregon to the hodge-podge of conflicting land uses of the 1960s - has been unmasked.
Russell Sadler has covered Oregon politics for 35 years. He is a contributing writer for blueoregon.com as well as several other publications around the West, including High Country News' Writers on the Range.