Rajneeshpuram and 1000 Friends: A Slice of Oregon History

Alyson Marchi-Young
Thu, 03/29/2018 (All day)
Rajneeshee cameramen at Rajneeshpuram, following staff visiting their then City Hall.

Who would have guessed that a Netflix series prompts 1000 Friends to dive into the archives? Two weeks ago, we wouldn’t have. With the series Wild Wild Country on Netflix, a fresh new look at a fascinating piece of Oregon history is now captivating a new generation. With twists and turns, Wild Wild Country explores the rise and fall of the Rajneeshee movement to Oregon. In the early 80s, followers of an Indian spiritual leader, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, aimed to build a utopian city in Oregon. The catch? They wanted to build the city on rural ranchland.

Oregon adopted its comprehensive statewide land use system in 1973. Shortly thereafter, in 1975, 1000 Friends of Oregon was formed to ensure that local, county and statewide officials and agencies properly implemented and managed the new land use laws. Six years later, in comes a case that could test the strength of these laws in practice. The Rajneeshpuram. A city designed and built by Rajneeshees on rural ranchland outside of the 40-person town of Antelope, Oregon.

In the fall of 1981, Margaret Hill, then-Mayor of Antelope, and Ma Anand Sheela, the Bhagwan’s personal secretary, separately contacted 1000 Friends of Oregon. The mayor wrote asking for advice and an investigation of whether “the most basic goals of our land use laws are being flouted.” Ma Anand Sheela wrote asking to “advise us how we can continue the work we have in mind.”

Bob Stacey was a senior staff attorney at this time, and would oversee the legal cases 1000 Friends worked on throughout the Rajneeshee stay in Oregon. “The Rajneeshees hired consultants who recommended they talk to us.  They said ‘If you’re gonna do anything in Oregon, you’ll have to get past 1000 Friends of Oregon. You should meet with them and find out what their objections are.’” So, Stacey, staff attorney Mark Greenfield, and urban planner Paul Gerhardt Jr. hosted Ma Anand Sheela, David Knapp (later Krishna Deva) and their local advisors for an initial meeting.

At that meeting, Stacey recalls that the advisors did the majority of talking to start with. They expressed interest in creating an agricultural commune. “To work the land, to restore the land, to make it bloom.” That plan sounded acceptable to the 1000 Friends staff. It was recommended that the Rajneeshees put together a farm management plan to demonstrate the need to support 150 farm workers (the initial proposed number of residents) to live on the commune. At this point, Stacey recalls that Sheela interrupted. ‘That is not our goal. Our goal is to have a city for our Bhagwan.”

It was explained that a city on farmland is not permissible under Oregon land use law.  They could file for permits and exceptions to build what they needed to support their agricultural workforce, but a city was not necessary for that type of support. Frustrated, Ma Anand Sheela declared, “We need a city and if you are going to give us trouble, we will have to beat you.”

It looked as if the Rajneeshees were on track to make a major development; that they were going to flout Oregon law by putting urban-scale development on agricultural rangeland.

In November 1981, Wasco County approved the Rajneeshee request to incorporate a city based on testimony that they needed this space to support a labor-intensive farm. It was the Rajneeshee’s contention that they needed to have the authority to grant their own permits for structures needed to sustain a major agricultural operation, and in this vast region of the state it would have been too onerous for them to travel to The Dalles or Madras to obtain building permits from Wasco or Jefferson counties.

Stacey recalls “this could be a very important case, because if incorporation was a loophole to urbanize a rural area, any development entity could move 150 people on to a site, hold an election, and approve an annexation.”  At that point you could claim to have an urban growth boundary and start developing.

Meanwhile, 1000 Friends’ Executive Director Henry Richmond had been working closely with Bill Bowerman, co-founder of Nike, on rural protections outside of Eugene. Bowerman’s family had a ranch adjoining the Rajneeshees. They, too, expressed concerns about the possible annexation of farm and ranchland for a city in the midst of active working ranches.

Richmond was clear, “If we were going to take on a case, any case, the board of directors had a list of objectives that had to be met.” Would the case meet legal muster? Would the facts of the case move Oregon towards greater land use protections or clarifications? Was it a precedent? This case, an appeal of the Wasco County decision to allow incorporation, was approved to move forward. 

1000 Friends, along with Antelope residents, local farmers Kelly and Rosemary McGreer, and other local ranchers, filed an appeal. 1000 Friends contended, “By the rather bold stroke of asking to be a ‘city,’ the Rajneesh and his followers can neatly sidestep all the LCDC requirements applicable to rural lands which everyone else has to follow. Under the goals, a city can allow all kinds of industrial, commercial and economic uses within its boundaries. If the incorporation is allowed, all the local governments, service districts, ranchers and local citizens lose the protections now available to them to regulate the placement of non-farm and urban developments in an obviously rural area.”

In March 1982, the Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA) dismissed 1000 Friends’ appeal, finding that a creation of a new city is not a land use decision. 1000 Friends took the case to the court of appeals. Following the LUBA decision, the Rajneeshees proceeded to incorporate - developing a comprehensive plan, issuing building permits and constructing their city.

A year goes by as both parties await a decision from the Court of Appeals.

Bob Stacey testifying at an LCDC appeal hearing to protect rural land from urbanization.

“By ‘83 there was a whirlwind of litigation. A lot of drama at the court of appeals” recalls Stacey. The Court of Appeals found in favor of 1000 Friends’ position. The case eventually ended up at the Oregon Supreme Court. At that point, “we were arguing about the philosophy and theory of the land use laws in the (Oregon) Supreme Court, and on the ground trying to prevent development and enforce land use goals.” 

The Oregon Supreme Court reached a decision in the summer of 1985, ruling in favor of the original LUBA determination – incorporation was not a land use decision. However, it clarified technical details finding that the test for counties to apply in approving a new incorporation was to determine “whether it is reasonably likely that the new city can and will comply” with land use laws in its zoned area.

By 1986 the majority of the Rajneeshee community had left the city.  According to Stacey, “We took a look at the site afterwards, many of the buildings had been removed, some remained. None of the community members had issue with the remaining buildings; they were tired of fighting. And Wasco County was in favor of keeping the structures if they could be repurposed for a rural use.” Thus, 1000 Friends closed that chapter of their work, with legal clarity on the primary, precedent-setting question: does incorporation trigger urbanization?




1000 Friends will make additional primary and secondary documents available in the coming week.

Oregonian 5-part history 25 years after Rajneeshee commune collapse

Netflix Documentary on Rajneeshees in Oregon revisits the amazing, enraging true story

- Utopia and Bureaucracy: the Fall of Rajneeshpuram, by Carl Abbot, Pacific Historical Review

- Oregon Public Broadcasting's Oregon Expereince: Rajneeshpuram