House pushes development in rural zones

March 27, 2003 11:00 pm

By James Sinks#

WesCom Capitol Reporter

SALEM — The Oregon House of Representatives Thursday approved legislation that would ease land use restrictions outside of city growth boundaries.

The proposal, which faces a tougher go in the Senate, would allow counties to open some 1,170 square miles of rural-zoned land — roughly the same amount of space that's inside all of the state's cities — to large-scale development including motels, industrial plants, houses and big-box retail stores of any size.

Champions of the idea, who include the real estate industry, developers and the Oregon Association of Counties, say the change could help jumpstart the state's drooping economy, return local planning control to counties and lead to more property taxes.

The potentially affected areas — categorized as rural-residential and rural-industrial lands — are already zoned for some kind of low-density development.

The legislation does not affect farm and forest-zoned parcels.

"One of the largest impediments to economic growth and job creation in rural Oregon is our statewide land use planning system," said Rep. Tootie Smith, R-Molalla, the chief sponsor.

"Oregon cannot afford to continue to go down the path that we have so blindly gone down through the past three decades."

Randy Tucker, lobbyist for 1000 Friends of Oregon, said some lawmakers are using the state's tough financial times to "blow holes" in one of the nation's highest-regarded systems for ensuring orderly growth.

He said his group opposes the bill, but supports other legislative efforts to help increase the state's inventory of industrial sites.

Former state Rep. Hector Macpherson, one of the sponsors of the original 1973 land use legislation, said the bill would effectively render meaningless urban growth boundaries, those invisible lines that discourage

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sprawl by keeping urban-style development within cities.

Macpherson sat in the gallery overlooking the House floor as the bill passed by a 36-to-21 tally, shaking his head.

"This destroys the basis of everything we were trying to do in urban areas," he said glumly.

When former Gov. Tom McCall, the architect of the system, called for a statewide planning program he said it would prevent "sagebrush subdivisions" where haphazard development and leaky septic systems threaten groundwater.

Rep. Greg Macpherson, D-Lake Oswego, the son of the former lawmaker, said legislators must not sell out the state's environmental legacy. "If we enact this bill we risk turning Oregon into anywhere U.S.A.," he said. "I believe Oregon is a special place and I believe in keeping it so."

Harlan Levy, a lobbyist for the Oregon Association of Realtors, said opponents are exaggerating the impact the bill would have. Market forces will not allow all of the acreage in question to be developed, he said.

Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, declared a potential conflict of interest before voting for the bill because he runs a private development business and could ultimately profit if it becomes law.

Sponsor Tootie Smith said lawmakers who didn't endorse the idea were standing in the way of Oregon's economic recovery. "This will result in the creation of jobs where they are needed the most and stimulate rural economies through increases in property taxes," she said. "I don't believe this body can afford to ignore responsible legislation that would expand the tax

base."