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Perchance to dream

Is changing state law possible to make Bend land cheaper?

Some Bend City Council candidates have campaign promises attempting to do so

By Marina Starleaf Riker, The Bulletin

bend-at-nightAs land prices soar and some people struggle to find rentals, some Bend City Council candidates say changing state land use laws could be help solve the problem.

For more than 40 years, growth in Oregon cities has been controlled by complicated rules passed to protect farm and forest land. But aspiring city officials say the rules to prevent urban sprawl have created unintended consequences — an affordable housing crisis in Bend.

“What happened is you have a huge influx of people with artificially limited land to build on,” said Justin Livingston, a Bend City Council candidate for Position 1. “Basic economics have taken over, and it’s increased the cost of land.”

Working to change state law to make Central Oregon land more affordable is a campaign promise for a couple Bend City Council candidates. But this isn’t the first time people have wanted to change the rules, and state lawmakers say it’s easier said than done.

“I welcome involvement certainly of the city councilors and any community leaders coming to Salem to get engaged and involved,” said Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend. “This is a very controversial area at the state level, I do think we can make progress.”

Buehler is supportive of tweaking the land use laws, which are largely tailored to protecting rich farmland in the west of the state, he said.

State Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, has also advocated to adapt state laws to better fit with Central Oregon’s land needs. But after more than a decade of representing parts of the region at the Oregon Legislature, that’s proved to be a challenge.

“To get it accomplished is very difficult because there are more representatives in the I-5 corridor, and it’s hard for them to see the differences in our land,” said Whisnant. “There are strong environmental special-interest groups that don’t want to change the land use laws.”

Oregon passed its first major land use law in 1973, which established the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development to regulate how Oregon cities develop rural land. Since then, Oregon voters have rejected several ballots measures to weaken or repeal the law altogether. Meanwhile, there have been dozens of tries by lawmakers to make it easier for cities to expand outward, but in general, only the subtle changes have been successful.

The talk among Bend City Council candidates to ramp up an effort to change the laws comes as Bend has spent nearly a decade trying to expand its city limits. The process has cost the city about $3 million after the state turned down a proposal in 2010 for being unjustifiably large.

Livingston, a real estate broker, and Bill Moseley, owner of GL Solutions, are touting their plans to make it easier for Bend to annex land outside of city limits. Wade Fagen, who’s running for Position 3 against Councilor Sally Russell, has also said he wants Bend to have more control over how it grows.

“I want more of the decision-making done in Bend, not in Salem,” said Moseley, who’s running for Position 2 against Councilor Doug Knight.

Both Moseley and Livingston, who’s running against Ronald “Rondo” Boozell, say they’ll push lawmakers to allow Bend to develop unused farmland, which is currently protected under state law. At this point, there are large swaths east of Bend that aren’t suitable for farming anyway, said Moseley.

“Could you imagine if we proposed to irrigate the desert?” said Moseley, adding that it makes sense to build homes there.

The candidates have also promoted plans to make it simpler for the city to develop land in the county. Several other cities are facing similar challenges with housing shortages; Livingston and Moseley say they plan to partner with them to get more sway with lawmakers Salem.

“It’s definitely going to be a hard process and I’m not being naive to that,” said Livingston. “It’s going to take political will and capital from elected officials to say, ‘this is the right thing to do.’”

But city officials in Bend say there’s been a long history of people trying to change the rules — in general, the success has come in baby steps.

“There have been minor adjustments here and there, and those have been easier to discuss and debate,” said Damian Syrnyk, senior planner for the city.

Under a bill passed in 2013, the state launched a new program to streamline the process for cities to expand, Syrnyk said. While that could make the process quicker for cities to annex land in the future, Bend was already in the midst of expanding so it didn’t make sense to switch to the new program in the middle of the process.

Meanwhile, Whisnant, said going forward, the city’s best bet for drastic change could be getting into an experimental program offered in other parts of Oregon. Recently, the state has allowed several counties in Southern Oregon to develop protected land if it’s not suitable for farming.

But otherwise, switching up how the state regulates growth is likely to be a hot-button issue in Oregon for years to come, Whisnant said.

“It’s been tried in the legislative system,” said Whisnant. “It’s not easy to do.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2160, mriker@bendbulletin.com

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