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OP-ED: The Eastern Oregon land use conundrum and Senate Bill 2

The eastern part of Oregon is a land unto itself. Its people, its industries, and its political and social attitudes vary widely from the majority of the state’s population concentrated in the Willamette Valley. Its challenges are also unique. Aside from some places like Hermiston, a hub for logistics and data center activity, and Umatilla, where high-value irrigated agriculture help diversify the economy, most of Eastern Oregon experiences unemployment and loss of population on a scale greater than the Willamette Valley. The industries in the area beyond Bend tend to be resource-based and less attractive to prospective employers, employees or potential residents. Most counties are losing population as their sons and daughters leave to live and work elsewhere.

From the Daily Journal of Commerce

Eastern Oregon faces an existential crisis and some of its residents would like the Legislature to revise the state’s planning and land use regulatory system to change things. Senate Bill 2, sponsored by two Eastern Oregon Republican senators and Senate President Peter Courtney, a Democrat, is the latest effort and is not, as with some of its predecessors in previous legislative sessions, an effort to exempt about half the state from its planning laws or to render those laws advisory.

Rather, the proposal is to allow any “listed county” (specifically Baker, Gilliam, Grant, Harney, Lake, Malheur, Sherman, Union, Wallowa and Wheeler) to designate up to a cumulative total of 50 acres outside of existing urban growth boundaries for industrial or employment uses. This allowance would be given, notwithstanding existing state land use policies protecting farm or forest lands or limiting urban uses to lands within urban growth boundaries. The only condition is that these uses not occur on high-value farmland and that the proposal be preceded by an Economic Opportunity Analysis to justify why the proposed industrial or employment use could reasonably be expected to expand or locate in the county based on a review of trends on a national, state, regional or county level. The requirements of the analysis are detailed and consistent with the approach state and local governments use to justify these uses within urban growth boundaries.

The stated reasons for this bill are direct – the region needs jobs and a bigger tax base to retain and attract residents and businesses. However, despite a good motive, the bill is a bad idea and ought to fail.

In the first place, creating urban islands in a rural, unincorporated sea is not good land use planning. If successful, these new 50-acre centers would likely require extensions of urban services such as roads, sewer and water. These rural counties are in no position to finance these necessary extensions, which are normally provided by cities to lands within urban growth boundaries. Cost savings of buying less expensive lands will be more than made up for in new infrastructure costs.

Rather than expanding urban growth boundaries outward, or creating 50-acre urban centers in remote areas, communities should rely on the ever-expanding global marketplace for greater opportunities for e-commerce, service and telecommuting. These new opportunities do not require expensive infrastructure and could be parlayed with classic Old West cities without breaking the urban growth boundary. Consider, for example, Softstar Shoes, which recently opened its headquarters and manufacturing operations in downtown Philomath in a former roller skating rink.

Second, the current system is not an impossible obstacle to providing land use approval to resource-based industry (potato processing plants, wood products processing and the like) that is either allowed outright or as a conditional use permit under current law. For other industrial or employment uses, approval can be gained through an exception to existing land use rules. The exceptions process is justifiably rigorous, because it requires a landowner who buys this cheaper land, the development of which would trigger significant infrastructure extension costs, to justify why existing urban lands cannot accommodate the proposed use or why an existing urban growth boundary cannot be extended. Moreover, an exception requires the landowner to respond to the inconvenient questions of infrastructure, of the need for the use, why it must be located on the particular land and an analysis as to why alternative or adaptive reuse of buildings and other amenities is not feasible in cities such as Pendleton, La Grande or Baker. The fact that these alternatives might negate the viability of an unserved rural island is no reason to pass Senate Bill 2.

Finally, throwing a sop to solve an issue looking for a problem for political reasons won’t address the fundamental trend in human migration to cities and away from rural areas or stop the relentless chorus asserting that the state’s land use system is harmful to the economy of the region. Eastern Oregon has seen its fortunes decline for many reasons – its perceived remoteness, the switch away from a relatively job-laden resource base in timber and agriculture for economic or environmental reasons, the attraction of larger cities and suburbs with more job opportunities, and the greater ability of cities to finance necessary improvements. The only way to get that back is by revitalizing cities and not by burdening them further by demanding that they serve new urban islands or by competing with them for prime industrial development.

There will always be complaints that the system isn’t working; however, those complainants have not shown that the current land use system is the reason. Critics will always want that one extra sweetener, and when that doesn’t work out, they’ll insist that salvation is now just over the next hill.

Edward Sullivan is a retired practitioner of land use and municipal law with more than 45 years of experience. Contact him at esulliva@gmail.com.

Carrie Richter is an attorney specializing in land use and municipal law at Bateman Seidel. Contact her at 503-972-9903 or crichter@batemanseidel.com.