Counties Need To Act On House Bill 2229

From Oregonians In Action,

For the first time since the passage of Senate Bill 100 in 1973, the 2009 Oregon legislature approved legislation giving counties the authority to review their rural zoning plans, rezone land that was improperly zoned as agricultural land or forest land, and fix nearly 40 years of zoning mistakes.

House Bill 2229 was the result of a compromise between Oregonians In Action, the Oregon Association of Realtors, the Oregon Building Industry Association, and environmental groups.  The bill represents a breakthrough for Oregon’s land use planning system – a recognition that rural areas throughout Oregon were miszoned during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, when counties were forced to rush through their rural planning efforts at the insistence of the Oregon Land Conservation and Development Commission (LCDC).

The end result of these rushed efforts was thousands of acres of private property being zoned as agricultural land or forest land, despite the fact that the land had never been used for farming or forestry and would never be productive, due to soil limitations, location, activities on surrounding lands, parcelization etc.

The debate over what to do with these miszoned lands has been at the heart of the fight over Oregon’s controversial land use laws, and is the prime example of why a statewide land use planning system is a poor substitute for local planning, as is done in the other 49 states.

House Bill 2229 is a recognition by those most involved in our state land use planning system that mistakes have been made and need to be corrected.  The job of correcting these mistakes falls upon the counties, who will also benefit greatly from properly zoning their rural areas.

But unfortunately, the response of counties to date has been underwhelming.  To date, not a single county has attempted to use House Bill 2229 to correct the zoning mistakes they made three decades ago.

This has to change.  The Oregon legislature, in bipartisan fashion, has given counties the opportunity to improve Oregon’s land use planning system in a way that benefits property owners and county government.   There are no downsides to acting.

The counties, however, have failed to take advantage of this new law.  There seem to be three reasons for the lack of performance.  First, many county officials do not track bills at the Oregon legislature, and are completely unaware of House Bill 2229.  This is a problem that is easily corrected.

Second, county officials are concerned about the cost of undertaking a review of their rural zoning.  At a time when many counties are struggling to fund their existing services, county officials are reluctant to take on new programs.

This concern, while understandable, can be easily countered.  HB 2229 does not create a new program that will require continued funding.  Fixing rural zoning mistakes is a one-time expenditure that ends upon county approval of the new mapping.

Moreover, proper zoning will benefit the counties.  Land that is currently zoned for farm or forest use that cannot be put to productive farm or forest use is nothing but open space, generating no economic use for the property owner, and no property tax revenue to counties.  Proper rezoning of that land not only provides new opportunities for private investment and economic activity, it also provides increased tax revenue for counties.

The third reason counties are not rushing to rezone their rural lands under HB 2229 is either apathy or the lack of concern and/or approval of rural miszoning.   It has simple become easy for some county officials to accept that rural land is miszoned.  Some county officials like the open space that results from the miszoning, while others are reluctant to “rock the boat,” even though that is precisely what the legislature has encouraged them to do.

Other county officials will not want to initiate a land use process that will require some effort on their part and the part of the local planning department, and a series of public hearings, some of which could become contentious.

This third reason is indefensible.  Yes, correcting rural zoning mistakes will not always be easy.  Yes, the easy path is to do nothing, and refuse to correct decades old mistakes.  Yes, county officials and planning departments will be asked to do some challenging work, and the end result may not be reached without disagreements between competing interests and local residents.

But that is part of the job description of a county official, and correcting past county mistakes shouldn’t be viewed as a secondary part of a county official’s job, it should be the top priority.  Fix what is broken before moving on to new things.

There is hope on the horizon, however.  Deschutes County is undergoing a complete review of their comprehensive plan, which could result in changes to their rural lands zoning, and a few county officials are expressing interest in using HB 2229 to remap their rural properties.

It appears, however, that it will take a concerted effort by property owners to get county officials to take advantage of the opportunity that is provided by HB 2229.  The legislature has given counties the opportunity to fix past mistakes.  It is now up to all of us to force the counties to act.

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