Rural housing plan sent back to drawing board

By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI Capital Press

A plan to make rural housing development easier in Oregon’s Douglas County must be reconsidered because state land use adjudicators have determined it inadequately preserves farm and forest lands.

Last year, the county authorized about 22,500 acres outside urban growth boundaries to be rezoned for 20-acre home sites, which was opposed by Oregon’s Department of Land Conservation and Development and its Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The conservation groups 1,000 Friends of Oregon and Friends of Douglas County joined the government agencies in challenging the plan.

Oregon’s Land Use Board of Appeals has now agreed with critics that Douglas County fell short of ensuring that its new “rural open space” designation complies with several state land use goals.

The decision sends a message to counties that farm and forest land conservation goals must be taken seriously, said Samantha Bayer, associate policy counsel for the Oregon Farm Bureau, which submitted a court brief arguing against the county’s plan.

“Despite being in Douglas County, it is an important ruling statewide,” Bayer said.

The county was overly reliant on “geographic information system” map filters in evaluating the plan’s impacts on agriculture and forestry instead of engaging with the local natural resources community, she said.

“They didn’t do a successful on-the-ground analysis of farming and agriculture in Douglas County,” Bayer said.

Such an analysis must take a thorough view of the land’s agricultural capacity, rather than relying solely on factors such as soil quality, she said.

“Some of our best ranch and range land is on lower class soils,” Bayer said. “Soil type is not necessarily consistent with the value of that land.”

Friends of Douglas County is pleased with LUBA’s opinion, which makes clear the county can’t disregard farm and forest preservation goals, said Shelley Wetherell, the group’s president.

“They don’t get to pick what land is protected and what isn’t,” she said. “They have to follow the statewide rules.”

The decision stresses that Oregon’s land use goals are intended to conserve not only commercial farm and forest operations but also surrounding lands that provide stability for these industries, said Scott Hilgenberg, attorney for 1,000 Friends of Oregon.

“LUBA highlighted that Goals 3 and 4 are broader than some county commissioners had understood at first blush,” he said.

Douglas County is still considering its options and hasn’t decided whether to appeal LUBA’s decision or whether to revise the plan on remand, said Tamara Howell, its public information officer.

While the county is disappointed by the ruling, its board of commissioners “remains committed to providing development opportunities on lands not generally suitable for agriculture or forestry activities and will continue to support local and statewide efforts to establish a non-resource land use designation,” she said in an email.

According to LUBA’s recent ruling, Douglas County should have considered additional factors in deciding what farmland should be excluded from the new “rural open space” designation, such as its climate and capacity for grazing.

Although the county didn’t make “exclusive farm use” land eligible for the new “rural open space” designation, LUBA found that land in “farm forest” and “agriculture woodlot” zones could be included.

Properties in these zones “may be utilized as part of farm units or to assist in farm use” and thus may need to be protected under the Oregon land use system’s “Goal 3” of farmland preservation, the ruling said.

Similarly, the county excluded forest land from the “rural open space” designation if it’s capable of producing more than 80 cubic yards per year in timber, but allowed less productive properties to be rezoned “despite the fact that they may still be commercial forest land,” LUBA said.

The county also didn’t demonstrate that its designation would protect nearby and adjacent lands that support forestry operations, according to the ruling.

Under the plan, a property could be eligible for rezoning if 60 percent of it meets the “rural open space” criteria.

In effect, that means 40 percent of the property could be re-designated even if it must be protected under the land use system’s “Goal 4” of forestland preservation, the ruling said.

“We agree that the decision lacks an adequate factual base because it fails to establish that the lands deemed eligible for re-designation do not include protected lands necessary for forestry uses on adjacent or nearby lands or other forested lands protecting soil, air, and water quality and fish and wildlife resources,” LUBA said.

LUBA also faulted the county for not properly considering the plan’s implications for other land use goals related to fire protection, wastewater treatment and coordination with cities on housing.