Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 1.10.08

Hacking Away
Oregon’s land-use program under constant attack

Since its inception 35 years ago, Oregon’s land-use program has been under attack from the same forces that brought us Measure 37. Little by little, lot by lot, timber and real estate interests, developers and their enablers in legislatures, commissions, councils and land management divisions have been busy night and day eviscerating the system.

In 2004, taking advantage of a pro-growth governor, an ignorant, inattentive and greedy public and anemic opposition, self-serving, anti-government opportunists transformed Oregon from a positive to a negative model of land use protection. Ironically, the passage of Measure 37 helped defeat similar measures in other states.

To “fix” M37, Measure 49 supporters delivered to posterity one of the most extreme property rights laws in the country. They undermined the foundation of Oregon’s land use program by reaffirming the premise of Oregonians in Action and (other) Republicans that government takes away people’s rights rather than creates and protects them, that people must be paid for following the law or the law must be eliminated.

As temperatures rise, water and oil supplies drop, and a recession lurks behind the next stock report, voters fast-tracked sprawl of up to three houses on prime farm and forest land and even on groundwater-restricted land and conceded as many as 10 houses if loss of value can be substantiated. As if these provisions were not generous enough, M49, unlike M37, allows development rights to be transferred and even offers an ombudsman to grease the skids. Around 7,500 M37 claims have been staked statewide, with additional claims possible under M49.

Adding insult to injury, the governor and his fellow Democrats in the Legislature are eager to revive the Big Look Task Force to “reform” Oregon’s land-use laws. With its first look, this development-biased committee found that “Oregon’s land use system has protected the agricultural and forestry land base” and “has contained sprawl.” Little wonder that a committee so near-sighted faulted the land use program for accommodating too little growth. The Big Look should take another look only if the Legislature appoints new members with 20-20 vision.

Not to be upstaged, The Register Guard, in a recent editorial, urged state and local governments to go easy on “vested rights” of M37 claimants and “to allow some subdivisions or commercial and industrial development.” Perhaps the editor had in mind the owner of 41 acres of farmland in Yamhill County who “vested” by hastily cobbling together 41 10′ by 10′ cabins on the 41 one-acre lots of his M37 claim.

Instead of the fix it was touted to be, M49 adds more cogs to an economic engine long overheated by the unlimited use of limited resources. Accumulating and rapidly accelerating environmental crises have made it abundantly clear, however, that growth — smart or otherwise — cannot be accommodated and that a new paradigm is in order.


We can begin by re-prioritizing Oregon’s 19 land use goals. Presently, economy is king and the natural environment and farm and forest resources are its abused servants. Under Goal 5: Natural Resources, for example, gravel industry needs trump the protection of farms, forests, wetlands and riparian corridors regardless of the ecological imperative to reduce or eliminate the markets that industry supplies.

State goals must be amended so that clean air and water and abundant productive soils are the foundation of a fertile local economy. An economy that recognizes and develops within natural limits could maintain and sustain indefinitely at a steady state in a closed resource, product and waste loop.

Statewide, I believe we must and we will see the emergence of groups like Lane County’s Willamette Farm and Food Coalition (WFFC) as key players in the effort to create a secure and sustainable local food economy. This year the WFFC formed a Farmland Preservation Committee that, among other tasks, will ask county commissioners to inventory and map Lane County’s farmland as a first step in establishing agricultural reserves both within and outside urban growth boundaries.

This grassroots, on-the-ground, in-the-ground renaissance reminds us that the true meaning of economy — to economize — is to be frugal, to bring our wants closer in line with our needs, to reduce the size of our carbon footprint. No better place to begin than our own backyards.

It’ll be a tough row to hoe, however, with the governor recently saying that slow growth is not acceptable, and the Big Look Task Force looking for ways to help him accelerate growth.

For a governor and Legislature seeking more money for more jobs to build more houses and more roadways for more people to produce more waste, more pollution and fewer resources – and more opportunity to do so under M49 — a few words from Walden provide counsel: “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

Robert Emmons of Fall Creek is president of LandWatch Lane County, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting Lane County’s farms, forests and open space from urban sprawl.