Supporters and opponents of the proposal both say it could set a precedent for land use in rural counties.
The rezoning effort sets up a potentially major shift in how Oregon — known for its conservative land use laws — manages a growing population.
Some rural counties complain that Oregon’s laws that protect farms and forest lands are too restrictive. If this plan in Douglas County moves forward, it could set a precedent for counties that want to build on land currently set aside for farming.
“What we are trying to do is identify a way to provide a little more flexibility to more rural jurisdictions to allow land that is of low or no value to commercial farming or forestry to be used in an alternative method,” said Douglas County Planning Director Keith Cubic.
The county analyzed the acres in question and concluded that they’re not suitable for most types of farming.
“We looked at soils, viticultural (grazing) boundaries,” Cubic said. “All of those factors were put together before they were disqualifying features.”
That’s a claim disputed by Greg Holmes, food systems programs director for 1,000 Friends Of Oregon.
“This is the type of land where our cattle and hay production happens, where our wine grapes happen, and other high-value crops to the state of Oregon happen,” Holmes said. He pointed out there’s land with similar soil types and characteristics across the state.
“It may be relatively less productive than some other lands, but if we were to suddenly take this type of land and call it non-resource land anymore and then multiply that across all the counties across the state … we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of acres of agricultural lands,” Holmes said.
Supporters and opponents of the proposal both say it could set a precedent for land use in rural counties. And other counties are watching this process carefully.
County leaders from Deschutes and Jefferson counties in central Oregon submitted letters of support for the idea to Douglas County leaders.
“Deschutes County is interested in pursuing a similar program,” reads the letter signed by the county’s three commissioners. “We recognize that a subset of resource lands are not accurately designated in our region as well.”
The plan has also attracted the attention of Oregon’s Department of Land Conservation and Development. The agency flagged a number of concerns with the proposal in a letter to Douglas County.
Douglas County commissioners could approve the plan this week. But they may also delay the decision to allow for more public input.
If the initial plan is approved by the commissioners, the idea would still need to go through a legislative process or a quasi-judicial process before the land could actually be rezoned, Cubic said. While he expressed support for Oregon’s land-use system, he believes it could be more flexible.
“There’s land that’s neither farm nor forest that is not sufficiently addressed by the statewide planning program,” Cubic said. “So our focus is first on those lands.”