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Oregon county approves scaled-back rural housing zone

Oregon’s Douglas County has approved a scaled-back plan to allow more rural housing on land currently zoned for farm and forest uses.

The change to the county’s comprehensive land use plan would allow 20-acre home sites to be carved out from 22,500 acres in mixed farm-forest zones, down from the originally proposed 35,000 acres.

It’s unlikely the full 22,500 acres will ever be developed due to limitations on water availability, appropriate septic tank sites and landowner consent to sell or divide property, said Keith Cubic, the county’s planning director.

The most likely scenario would be 25 percent utilization of the available acreage, creating 375 new housing parcels, said Cubic.

Even so, Cubic acknowledges the county’s experiment with the “rural open space” designation is a test case for Oregon.

The county has tried to resolve concerns raised by Oregon’s Department of Land Conservation and Development, which administers the statewide land use planning system, he said.

“I don’t know if we got there,” Cubic said. “We’ll find that out.”

Douglas County will soon formally submit the “rural open space” plan amendment to DLCD for review, then wait until April 21 before rezoning any properties under the new designation.

If the agency or another party objects to the change before Oregon’s Land Use Board of Appeals, proposed zone changes will be put on hold until the challenge is resolved.

A remand from LUBA requiring modifications to the “rural open space” designation could provide a helpful interpretation of the law and make the plan amendment more successful, Cubic said.

In comments submitted on the proposal last year, DLCD worried the county had too narrowly defined agricultural land and set an excessively high productivity standard for livestock and forest land to be protected under the plan.

It’s unclear whether the plan considered the environmental and wildlife benefits of lower-productivity soils, the agency said.

According to DLCD, the county “loosely” concluded that development in rural areas would be economically positive, creating a “discrepancy” with studies that found that added service costs may outweigh any benefits.

The plan refers to accommodating demand for rural housing, which isn’t required under statewide planning goals and may be in “direct conflict” with some of them, the agency said.

Due to these and other concerns, DLCD said the proposal “is not consistent with state statutes and rules.”

Cubic of Douglas County said the revised plan used additional data overlays that exclude higher-quality farm and forestland from acreage available for 20-acre parcels.

Eligible “rural open space” parcels must be within two miles of existing cities and unincorporated rural communities.

However, three towns were disqualified due to the high proportion of surrounding farm and forest zones, inadequate road access, habitat concerns and other issues, he said.

The plan change is also expected to increase housing availability within existing “urban growth boundaries” due to people moving from cities to the rural parcels, Cubic said. “It does provide some rural housing opportunities.”

While the county can approve larger zone changes, most re-designations will occur after requests from individual landowners, he said.

The county didn’t shift all available 22,500 acres into the “rural open space” designation to avoid raising expectations in the event the plan is challenged, he said.

Aside from DLCD, the conservation group 1,000 Friends of Oregon has also been apprehensive about aspects of Douglas County’s proposal.

Greg Holmes, the group’s food systems program director, said he doesn’t yet have the basis to comment on the plan because he hasn’t seen the final adopted version.

Holmes said the public wasn’t able to review details of the revised plan before it was approved, making for a “very opaque process.”