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Ruling overturns limit on replacing Oregon farm dwellings

The Oregon Court of Appeals has ruled farmland dwellings can be rebuilt even if they were demolished more than five years ago, reversing a previous legal decision.

Dwellings can be rebuilt on Oregon farmland regardless of when the original structures were destroyed or removed, according to the Oregon Court of Appeals.

The ruling overturns an earlier interpretation of state law by Oregon’s Land Use Board of Appeals, which held that dwellings can only be rebuilt if they were subject to property taxes within the past five years.

Landwatch Lane County, a farmland preservation group, argues thats the Oregon Court of Appeals has misconstrued the pertinent land use statute, creating an “end run” around the state planning goal of preserving farmland.

“I would call it devastating for Oregon farmland,” said Lauri Segel-Vaccher, the group’s legal analyst.

Long-lost homes could be rebuilt on farmland regardless of soil quality and with uncertain proof they existed in the first place, she said.

Counties are often “lackadaisical” in protecting farm and forestland, so they may require only scant evidence of a dwelling’s location, Segel-Vaccher said.

“Anybody could come up with a photograph or a diary entry from the 1800s,” she said.

Landwatch Lane County hasn’t yet decided whether to challenge the decision before the Oregon Supreme Court, Segel-Vaccher said.

Oregonians In Action, a property rights group, believes state lawmakers were “fully informed” of the effect their revisions would have on the applicable land use statute in 2013.

“The whole purpose of the bill was to allow property owners to replace dwellings that had been removed, in some cases, decades earlier,” said Dave Hunnicutt, the group’s executive director.

The notion that a significant number of homes will be built as a result is “silly” because landowners must still demonstrate the existence of a dwelling, he said.

“Most rural land is on parcels that have never had farm dwellings,” said Hunnicutt.

The legal dispute over replacement farmland dwellings stems from the case of landowner who sought to rebuild three houses on 100 acres of farmland near Florence, Ore., that were torn down more than two decades ago.

Lane County officials permitted the construction based on a 2013 bill that eased the replacement process for dilapidated or demolished farm dwellings.

However, the county’s decision was reversed last year by the Land Use Board of Appeals, which found the dwelling replacement provision is “somewhat ambiguous” but only applies to a five-year “look back” period during which property taxes were imposed.

The Court of Appeals has disagreed with that understanding, ruling that it’s “logical to conclude that the legislature intended to excuse demolished dwellings from the taxation requirement altogether.”