Why Is My Land Called Farmland When It Can’t Be Farmed?

By Oregon Property Owners Association,

We filed comments with the Deschutes County Planning Commission on the County’s effort to update its current Comprehensive Plan.  Oregon law requires every city and county in Oregon to maintain a comprehensive plan.  The plan contains the planning policies that govern land uses throughout the jurisdiction.

In Oregon, every city and county’s comprehensive plan must comply with Oregon’s statewide planning  goals. The goals are set by Oregon’s Land Conservation and Development Commission (LCDC), a 7-member commission appointed by the governor. Oregon’s system is unique in the United States, and results in much more limited local control over planning and zoning than the other 49 states.

The Perils of the Planning Goals. 

Although LCDC has created 19 statewide goals, and no goal is supposed to be more important than the others, LCDC has focused an excessive amount of attention on Goal 3, the agricultural lands goal. Goal 3 is designed to protect farmland for farm uses, and not other non-farm uses like housing developments, commercial buildings, and factories. The concept is simple, but the devil lies in the details.

Goal 3 has been a problem from the moment it was first introduced in 1975.  The problem lies in the definition of “agricultural land”. The Goal 3 definition of “agricultural land” is so broad that it encompasses hundreds of thousands of acres of land in Oregon that have no value for farming and have never been farmed.  In fact, when combined with the broad definition of “forest land” in Goal 4, nearly 97 percent of all private rural property in Oregon is zoned as “farmland” or “forestland” under Goals 3 or 4.

It doesn’t matter whether the land has ever been farmed, will ever be farmed, or can support any kind of profitable farm operation. Sure, you might be able to put a few sheep on the land, provided you truck in feed and water and don’t care about losing money. But you can do that in the parking lot at the local Wal-Mart – that doesn’t make it “farmland”.

The result is that LCDC requires counties like Deschutes County to zone rural areas as “farmland” that have zero possibility of ever being used for profitable farming. Farmers are smart – if the land can’t be used for profitable farming, it isn’t going to be farmed. Nevertheless, the state makes all counties zone land for farming that isn’t any good for actual farming.

Planning On Rocky Ground.

Deschutes County (along with Crook County) are the poster counties for miss-zoned “farmland”.  In both counties, a combination of factors including very shallow and rocky soils, relatively few frost-free days each year, and a lack of water have combined to make farming nearly impossible on most rural parcels.  Forcing the County to call that land “farmland” is a cruel joke that hurts the County, the economy, and the owners of that land.

The only groups that benefit from forcing a county to designate land as “farmland” regardless of whether it can actually be farmed or has ever been farmed are the small number of rural residents who moved into the area and use the “farmland” zoning on their neighbors’ property to prevent them from doing the same thing they’re doing.  They’re NIMBY’s, and unfortunately, Deschutes County has a lot of them, including many recently transplanted residents who moved in from out of the area and now want to shut the door behind them.

It’s our belief that if you own and live on rural land, you have no business complaining when your neighbor wants to do the exact same thing you’re doing.

OPOA Advocates for Change.

In any event, there is absolutely nothing an Oregon county can do to stop the state from forcing them to designate almost all of their rural lands as “farmland” or “forestland”. But they certainly don’t have to make things worse by adding even more restrictions on rural county residents.

That’s why we wrote to Deschutes County today, asking them to not go beyond the state requirements that limit uses in farm and forest zones.  We didn’t ask the County to ignore state law – they can’t do that.  All we asked is that they don’t make things worse for rural communities and property owners.  We ask the same in every Oregon county and stand ready to help any Oregon county (yes, even Multnomah) that wants to protect their rural residents, farmers, and economy as best they can.

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