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Oregon’s Douglas County considers 35,000 acres for rural housing

Twenty-acre rural lifestyle home sites would be allowed on 35,000 acres in Oregon’s Douglas County under a proposal to be voted upon in January.

Mateusz Perkowski Capital Press

Published on December 14, 2017 7:54AM

Nearly 35,000 acres of farmland and forestland in Oregon’s Douglas County would become available for rural housing under a plan that may be approved in January.

The county’s commissioners are considering changing the designation of these acres from farm and forest zones to “non-resource transitional lands” where 20-acre home sites could be developed.

While the county believes this revision is needed to meet demand for “rural lifestyle” dwellings in the area, state land use regulators and farmland preservation advocates are concerned by the proposal.

The alleged need for rural housing isn’t actually backed up by analysis, said Greg Holmes, Southern Oregon advocate for the 1,000 Friends of Oregon conservation group.

“There’s a lot of assertions that aren’t supported by material in the record,” Holmes said.

Douglas County currently has land that’s classified for agriculture and forestry uses but is actually of low quality for commercial production, said Keith Cubic, the county’s planning director.

“It’s not well addressed under current state law,” but the county believes it can make the “non-resource” concept fit within existing land use parameters, he said.

The 35,000 acres identified for minimum 20-acre rural lots have been selected because they’re not high-value farmland, rangeland or forestland, Cubic said.

Areas with wetlands and big game habitat have been excluded from the “non-resource” designation, as have properties two miles outside of existing cities and rural communities.

The county wanted to avoid new development in the “middle of nowhere” that’s difficult to reach for firefighters and other service providers, Cubic said.

In all, only about 1 percent of the county’s farmland and forestland would be eligible for rural lifestyle housing, he said.

The plan would allow for about 2,300 new 20-acre parcels, but the county expects only 25 percent to 50 percent would be developed.

Even so, Oregon’s Department of Land Conservation and Development has raised several concerns about the proposal that are shared by 1,000 Friends of Oregon.

Douglas County is misapplying a state land use provision that allows parcels to “go below” standard acreage sizes for farmland and forestland under certain circumstances, said Holmes.

This provision is appropriate for certain uses, such as vineyards, but not for rural housing, he said. “They’re not allowed to use that process.”

The county has also set the threshold too high for what is considered commercially feasible forestland and grazing land, allowing for rural housing development in areas where livestock and tree production are viable, Holmes said.

Surrounding existing cities with low-density rural housing is also problematic when those communities seek to expand, he said. Developers must then consolidate properties and work around or remove existing infrastructure, such as roads and septic tanks.

“When and if the urban areas expand, it’s inefficient,” Holmes said.

Compared to farms, which are inexpensive for local governments to service, smaller rural housing parcels can end up costing more than the added tax revenue they bring in, he said. “It’s a net loss to the county usually.”

Cubic, of Douglas County, said the plan relies on appropriate analysis of commercially-viable forestland and rangeland and complies with statewide land use planning goals.

Under Oregon law, counties must submit amendments to their comprehensive land use plans — such as the “non-resource” idea — to the Department of Land Conservation and Development for comment, said Tim Murphy, DLCD’s farm and forest lands specialist.

DLCD doesn’t approve or reject such plans, but they can be challenged before the state’s Land Use Board of Appeals, he said.