Long Days on the Trail: A Message From Our Executive Director

By Jason Miner, 1000 Friends Executive Director

On the day the 2011 legislative session was supposed to end, I was still sitting in the rotunda of the State Capitol.Most other advocacy organizations had gone home for the summer, their issues laid to rest. But not land use. Our issues—issues Senate President Peter Courtney characterized as “the most contentious in the building”—continued until the final minutes. 

In 2008, 1000 Friends of Oregon published the Blueprint for Oregon’s Future, a comprehensive statement of the shared goals of some 2,200 Oregonians from 140 communities who participated in dozens of town hall meetings around the state. That vision guided our work in the 2009, 2010, and 2011 sessions. Protect our best farmland, forestland, and natural areas; ensure transportation and development projects minimize greenhouse gas emissions; create a healthy climate friendly transportation system. Those were the three broad objectives of the Blueprint.

In 2009 and 2010, the Legislature passed HB 2001 and SB 1059, which built on the Blueprint. These require Oregon’s major cities to consider transportation and land use planning that minimizes greenhouse gas emissions. The pay-off for doing so is great: healthier communities with more options for every Oregonian – options for biking, walking, taking transit, and other choices.

In 2011, our opportunities to advance the Blueprint were few. The session began under the cloud of a $3.5 billion hole in the biennial budget, and an even split between the parties in the House. Not long after the election results were in, a drumbeat could be heard throughout Salem, calling for rollbacks of land use laws to pave the way for jobs of any sort. At the same time, we had long expected that attempts to open up farmland to non-farm events and commercial activities would be back before the legislature. Though the early punditry predicted a policy-light session with the major issues being budgetary, 1000 Friends knew we were in for a difficult session. By the end of the very first day, we were already tracking 69 bills that concerned us. Within a few days, we were following well over 140.

In the winter we had some early successes. A raft of legislation had been introduced to curtail public participation. One bill, HB 2182, mandated that only owners of land could challenge neighboring land use decisions, a huge impediment to farmers who often lease land for production. Another, HB 2181, required appellants to post a hefty bond and be liable for developer’s attorney fees if they lost. The theme was clear: land use appeals would be limited to the landed gentry, while broader public interest would be shut out.

Fortunately, in April the Governor issued a letter on land use that changed the scene. Stating succinctly that he would not support legislation that fundamentally changed the land use system or that gave a specific benefit to any individual, he ensured that many of the bills that had concerned us were no longer a threat.

By mid-session, the drumbeat for creating jobs had continued to grow. Three bills had been drafted for this purpose: SB 766, SB 792, and SB 476. The latter two entirely exempted industrial uses and employment providers from land use laws; in the case of SB 476 giving any employer moving into an area a free pass on planning, provided they moved or created just ten jobs or more. While we actively opposed SB 792 and SB 476, we supported SB 766, because it made policy improvements worth supporting, despite having some drawbacks on the public participation aspects of site planning. 

We supported SB 766 because it enables the Governor to designate Regionally Significant Industrial Areas (RSIAs) on land already zoned and planned for industrial use and containing specific investments in infrastructure. The bill prevents employment land in these RSIAs from being converted to other uses, and changes the way the loss of employment land is mitigated. Currently, if employment land is used for other purposes, including environmental restrictions, it has to be replenished on an acre-for-acre basis somewhere else. This fuels arguments for urban growth boundary expansions. SB 766 changes the “currency” that is evaluated, from acres to “employment potential.” If the same amount of employment can be accommodated by building “up,” using a site more efficiently, or re-using areas such as brownfields, there is no need to find additional industrial land outside UGBs to replenish the 20-year supply required by law.

These policy changes make it more likely that jobs will be sited on land already zoned for employment inside urban growth boundaries. This in turn puts jobs closer to where people live, a primary strategy for building more livable communities. It also makes efficient use of existing infrastructure – roads, sewers, transit lines, and police and fire services that we’ve already invested in. And this, in turn, enables us to use limited public funds for other more pressing needs, including investments in urban greenspaces, green infrastructure, and repairing our existing transportation system.

The end of the session saw a flurry of activity around the definition of Exclusive Farm Use zoning (EFU). For years we have fought to preserve farmland for farm uses and year after year, new uses are brought to the table as exceptions. Two bills, HB 3615 and HB 3280, took us to the last day of the session. HB 3615 proposed to devolve the definition of EFU land back to Jackson, Josephine, and Douglas counties, and included the provision that those counties could dictate back to the state what factors they would consider when they remapped their lands based on the new definition. Factors listed in the bill included analysis of the types of uses on neighboring lands. This would essentially upend one of the primary goals of planning: protecting agricultural land from conversion due to potential conflicts with neighbors. If a farm is bordered by a housing development, that should not compromise the farm’s right to the benefits of EFU zoning. The bill was pronounced dead several times, then rumored to be resurrected in the session’s final days, as a potential trade for some other, unrelated, bills. Eventually it died somewhere in the depths of the Capitol as the session came to a close.

Before sine die arrived, however, the final weeks of the session were marked by passionate negotiations over commercial uses at wineries located on EFU land. HB 3280, which passed in the last weeks of the session, allows for up to 25 days of events unrelated to agriculture at wineries, and allows an additional 24 events (18 with no specific time limitation) provided the winery gets a conditional use permit from the county. 1000 Friends of Oregon strongly supports the wine industry; in fact, it is a great example of how protecting farmland enabled a new industry to develop in Oregon. There are plenty of new and creative ways the industry is growing, including urban wineries and tasting rooms inside urban growth boundaries. But allowing 25 days of commercial scale events on EFU land, without any evaluation of its impacts on neighboring agricultural uses or agricultural land, is a recipe for conflict. We vigorously opposed HB 3280 until the last vote, and believe that the best way to support wineries is to ensure that they continue to receive the tax benefit of being allowed uses on EFU land, and to reduce conflicts with other land uses. HB 3280 failed to do that.

A picture from my trip to the Wallowas.At that point I was in Idaho, swimming, biking, and running 140.6 miles in Ironman Coeur d’Alene. Some of my final decisions of the session were made over the phone at 5:00 AM, prior to the race. As the gavel was falling, my family was making slow progress back to the Oregon Trail route, with a long stopover in the Wallowas (at left is a photo from my trip). Looking at the moraines of Wallowa Lake, it is hard to believe they once could have been housing developments. Driving down Emigrant Hill and looking out for the landmarks of the Oregon Trail, I thought about Oregon’s past and how to make the best use of our land for future generations.

Action items from our Blueprint for Oregon’s Future remain undone. In 2012 and 2013, expect to see 1000 Friends advancing a positive agenda to support the second largest industry in Oregon – agriculture – and protect the land that makes it possible.

At the same time, one of our greatest challenges is to get this generation of Oregonians reinvested in our unique heritage, and recommitted to protecting and enhancing Oregon’s environment and economy in a sustainable way. Look for us out in the field, hosting open houses, events, and town hall meetings in your community. We’ll be listening to you describe how you want to see the state build on the Blueprint for Oregon’s Future.

Between now and the 2012 session, we'll be working to educate legislators about these issues more extensively. To stay in the loop and learn about ways to help, sign up for our action alerts here: http://www.friends.org/take_action.

Oregon Stories, July 2011

Next Story: Peter Walker on Oregon's Land Use Planning Challenge