Oregon Supreme Court Delivers Important Victory for Oregon Farmland

In a significant victory for Oregon farmland and the integrity of our land use system, the Oregon Supreme Court last week prevented the development of a subdivision on farmland in Yamhill County that had won final approval the day before Measure 49 was passed by Oregon voters.  This is a big victory for our affiliate Friends of Yamhill County and Crag Law Center, who brought the case, as well for as all of us who believe that prime Willamette Valley farmland should be protected from speculative sprawl.

Measure 37, passed in 2004, gave landowners whose property values were reduced by land use regulations the right to seek compensation from the state or to develop their lands. As it was written, Measure 37 threatened the very foundation of Oregon's land use system. Fortunately, Measure 49 pulled back much of those dangers when it was approved by Oregon voters in 2007.  It allowed property developers who had already started development on lands claimed under Measure 37 to either use an “express lane” to complete a small project--up to three houses--or to argue that they had a legal right to complete their projects.

Gordon Cook, a landowner near Newberg, had proposed a 10-lot subdivision in Yamhill County on his farmland in 2007. He argued that he had a “vested right” to continue development after Measure 49 passed, since he had already spent money on the development before the measure took effect. Although the Board of Commissioners of Yamhill County and a lower circuit court agreed, the Oregon Supreme Court reversed those rulings.

The Court ruled that the Commissioners and the circuit court had failed to determine what the cost of the development would be and the ratio of the money spent to that final cost.  Without that information it would be impossible to determine if the amount of money already spent was significant enough, which is a precondition for determining whether Cook had a vested right to develop the property.

A recent OPB report called these vested rights determinations one of the "Ghosts of Measure 37" still haunting rural Oregon. By reinforcing the will of Oregon voters when they passed Measure 49, this case strengthens Oregon’s land use system and gives local governments, farmers, and landowners better certainty about how to plan for future investments.

For more information on the ruling, read this article from the Statesman-Journal.