Fifty Years of Unique Land Use | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

Fifty Years of Unique Land Use

Oregon's land-use laws are one of a kind in the U.S. They're both beloved and reviled, 50 years after Senate Bill 100 was signed into law

In 1973 Oregon Gov. Tom McCall signed Senate Bills 100 and 101, creating the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development and 14 statewide planning goals and protections to farmland. It was the most ambitious and powerful statewide land-use decision any state undertook before or since. No other state regulates land use to the extent Oregon does, creating a framework for land-use planning that every city and county must adhere to, and is subject to review by the DLCD.

click to enlarge Fifty Years 
of Unique Land Use
Courtesy Karaskye via Pixabay
Senate Bill 100 sought to preserve farms and forestland in Oregon, but also encouraged cities to be dense.

When SB100 passed, Oregonians felt pressure about the speed of development. Suburbs exploded in the post-World War II era, with more than 1.5 million new homes built annually between 1946 and 1955. In Oregon those suburbs were placed on farmlands and forestlands in the Willamette Valley.

"The gravest threat to the environment and to the whole quality of life lies in unfettered spoiling of the land. Sagebrush subdivisions, coastal developments begun without vision, and disorderly growth in the Willamette Valley threaten to mock Oregon's status as the environmental model for the nation," McCall said in a 1973 speech. "We are in dire need of a state land-use policy, new subdivision laws, and new standards for planning and zoning by cities and counties."

"We want you to visit our state of excitement often. Come again and again. But for heaven's sake, don't move here to live. Or if you do have to move in to live, don't tell any of your neighbors where you're going." —Gov. Tom McCall

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Oregonians at the time feared the loss of nature and farmland would fundamentally change the nature of the state. Decades before bumper stickers declaring "Bend Sucks, Don't Move Here" adorned Central Oregonian's Subarus, Gov. McCall had a very similar message.

"We want you to visit our state of excitement often. Come again and again. But for heaven's sake, don't move here to live. Or if you do have to move in to live, don't tell any of your neighbors where you're going," McCall said.

SB100 lays out 19 statewide planning goals. Its first goal is public involvement, which mandates local governments to have citizen involvement programs for land use. Other goals define agricultural, forest and scenic lands, create pollution protections and call for communities to specify their recreational and housing needs. Foremost, the legislation was intended to protect farmland and forests, but mandates to cities also created denser population centers.

The legislation was and remains controversial. Legislators introduced laws and ballot measures that would repeal or roll back SB100's provisions as early as 1976, and other attempts were made throughout the '80s. In an interview with OPB, Gordon Fultz, a consultant who helped establish Oregon's land use system, recalled having a gun pulled on him at the Capitol over the law. In the early 2000s Oregonians approved a ballot measure that reimburses rural property owners if zoning changes impact property values and allows them to retain the zoning use it was purchased as — a major contention for opponents of SB 100. The push and pull in Oregon's land-use laws continues, with a chief focus now being affordable housing as real estate and rental prices rise.

The argument for Oregon's land-use system

Central Oregon LandWatch serves as a local watchdog for land-use issues in the region. Though Oregon's land-use laws are strong, they still can be skirted in quasi-judicial decisions. LandWatch monitors land developments, timber sales and water use in Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties, and sounds the alarm when projects could run afoul of Oregon law through public calls to actions and lawsuits. LandWatch considers itself to be a part of Oregon's land-use system and is a strong defender of its policies.

click to enlarge Fifty Years 
of Unique Land Use
Courtesy Deane Bayas via Pexels
Oregon implemented its land use system as suburbs spread across the country.

"The framework of Oregon's land-use system shapes countless small decisions that collectively form the societal fabric of the state. Without this system, each decision would be considered individually, including decisions to remove farmland protections or expand urban boundaries, and would be at the whims of whoever the elected official is at the moment. I think in a lot of cases, land can become whatever the highest bidder wants to make it. Instead, we have a system that takes into account a number of factors, not just profit," said Ben Gordon, executive director of Central Oregon LandWatch.

That framework keeps industries that could conflict with each other separate. For example, industrial activities are kept off farmland and housing units are placed strategically in the most livable areas. Gordon said Oregon avoided the sprawling cities like Los Angeles or Atlanta by following an intentional path of land use. Gordon said it also helps achieve some environmental goals by reducing car travel in compact urban areas and stops encroachment onto forest and farmland.

"This balanced approach is at the core of the land-use system. It ensures an adequate supply of developable land to meet housing needs while prioritizing the majority of development within the urban growth boundaries. Simultaneously, it safeguards and retains our farm and forest lands to the greatest extent possible," Gordon said.

LandWatch opposed Bend's last attempted UGB expansion in 2016, and after a lot of debate and testimony from the public, experts and officials, the City Council reduced its expansion by nearly 70%. Gordon said less than 10% of the land identified in that expansion has been developed, and that the available land offers plenty of opportunities for development.

[An earlier version of this story said less than 10% of the land in the latest UGB expansion is undeveloped, rather than 10% being developed. We regret the error.]

click to enlarge Fifty Years 
of Unique Land Use
Courtesy City of Bend
Bend last updated its UGB in 2016, adding 10 expansion areas and nine opportunity areas.

"Within Bend's urban growth boundary expansion, which spans approximately 2,000 acres, there is an array of properties available for different types of development. Whether a developer seeks infill opportunities or prefers a greenfield site where they can build from the ground up, there is ample space to accommodate their preferences," Gordon said.

Oregon's land-use laws are often blamed for the high cost of living. Gordon, however, sees a national trend in housing affordability that's even worse in states like California, where there aren't overarching zoning laws. He also points to a goal in SB100 that specifically requires necessary housing to be built.

"I don't think it's fair to blame it on the land-use system. In fact, the land-use system has Goal 10, which is actually sort of the requirement that the necessary amount of housing be provided for all of Oregon," Gordon said. "The goals outline high-level values that as Oregonians we want to uphold."

The argument against

Dave Hunnicutt is the president of the Oregon Property Owners Association and a longtime critic of Oregon's land-use laws. He philosophically disagrees with a system that restricts property rights but focuses on how this impacts opportunities to develop land and the costs carried by individuals.

"There are two things that are causing our problems. It's process, procedural process, what it takes to get an approval to do anything, and it's land supply," Hunnicutt said. "The housing shortage that we have right now has been brewing for at least a decade. And we've told the legislature for at least that long and probably longer."

Hunnicutt says that UGBs lower land supplies, which raises prices on land within them, and that the longer processes to build can deter development. He argues that the interpretation of UGBs as an "impenetrable wall" around cities misrepresents the original intent, which was to guide growth, not stop it.

"It went from, 'let's have managed growth, where we make sure that we have infrastructure planned and designed in the areas where we're going to grow,' to, 'we're going to choose our area where we're going to expand the boundary based on farmland protection,' which is, with the way the priority statute is set up, means that you expand the boundary into the worst possible areas for purposes of infrastructure and development that you could possibly go," Hunnicutt said.

click to enlarge Fifty Years 
of Unique Land Use
Courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service via Flickr
Tom McCall signed Senate Bill 100 into law in 1973, which created a unique land-use system in Oregon.

He outlined three models of land use. The first, and most common in the United States, is local, with cities and counties making planning and zoning decisions. The second is top-down development codes from the state, applied evenly to all communities in Oregon. Oregon is unique in that it is a hybrid of these two approaches, which Hunnicutt believes creates a moving target for developers.

"The problem with that is we get a mix of regulations that are always changing, it makes it hard for the cities. And it also makes it hard for the folks that are trying to develop," Hunnicutt said. "It would be almost better, just to pick one or the other. Either let the cities do it, or have the state do it. But not a hybrid where we have some of both, and that's what we have here."

Hunnicutt also believes that Oregon's land shortages could be solved with only modest increases to available land inside UGBs. Gov. Tina Kotek issued an emergency order calling for 36,000 new housing units a year, about twice as many as what's currently produced in the state. Hunnicut doesn't believe it'd be possible to do that with infilling what's currently available.

"If you look at the amount of land that's inside urban growth boundaries in Oregon, I think the public would be shocked," Hunnicutt said. "We house basically 99% of our population on about 1.2% of the state's land. So, we could go from 1.2% to 2%, add an additional 0.8% of the land, put it inside Urban Growth Boundaries and no one would know the difference, but it would make a huge difference in housing prices."

On June 15 City Club will host a debate on Oregon's land-use system and its impact on urban sprawl and housing costs. In Salem a bill could put temporary authority to redraw urban growth boundaries in Kotek's hands. Senate Bill 4 would create a $200 million fund to advance semiconductor manufacturing, and give the governor the power to bring adjacent farmland into UGBs as industrial land until June 2024, for semiconductor manufacturing. Though narrowly targeted, it would break with Oregon's established land-use system.

About The Author

Jack Harvel

Jack is originally from Kansas City, Missouri and has been making his way west since graduating from the University of Missouri, working a year and a half in Northeast Colorado before moving to Bend in the Spring of 2021. When not reporting he’s either playing folk songs (poorly) or grand strategy video games,...
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