Oregon's Big Look Task Force, as chaired by Pendleton rancher Mike Thorne, is coming to seem increasingly small-minded. Not a good sign for a group that's supposed to take a broad, inclusive view of our state's pioneering land use system.
Yesterday Laurel, my wife, went to a task force meeting here in Salem. She hoped to be able to speak during the public comment period, since even though The Big Look held ten town hall meetings around Oregon, none were in the mid-Willamette Valley.
She wasn't able to drive to Portland or Eugene to say her piece, so when a 1000 Friends of Oregon staffer (we're members) told Laurel that the agenda for the October 8 meeting included a fifteen minute public comment period, she headed down to a Department of Land Conservation and Development meeting room.
Laurel got there well before the 4:45 to 5:00 pm time for that agenda item. But she found that the meeting already had been adjourned, with no opportunity for public comment.
Someone suggested that she talk with the chair of the task force, who was still in the room. Mike Thorne turned out to be an irritable guy who wasn't much interested in hearing what someone highly knowledgeable about land use issues had to say.
Seemingly, because Laurel was involved with 1000 Friends of Oregon. Thorne said, "I'll be straight with you if you'll be straight with me. I suspect 1000 Friends of Oregon put you up to this [coming to testify]."
Well, they did let Laurel know about the meeting.
But Laurel explained to Thorne that she'd wanted to speak at one of the town hall meetings and had been disappointed that none were held in the Salem area. So this was a chance to tell the task force about her experience with Measures 37 and 49, declining groundwater, and why clueless local government officials shouldn't be able to undermine statewide land use goals.
Her impression, which also is mine, is that Thorne and some of the other task force members already have made their minds up and don't want to let inconvenient reality-based facts intrude upon their desire to give Oregonians in Action and other pave Oregon over types what they want.
It's too bad that the credibility of The Big Look already is down the tubes even before its recommendations are released, because some tweaking of our state's land use laws is in order.
However, it's becoming evident that The Big Look intends to view Oregon through a teeny-tiny keyhole shaped by an extreme property rights perspective – ignoring the rights of those who already live in an area where additional development would trash valuable farmland, forestland, and limited groundwater.
An October 8 editorial in the state's largest newspaper, the Oregonian, cautioned that the Big Look Task Force not run rough-shod over citizens who want to speak their minds about keeping this state green, clean, and livable.
One real concern is whether the task force is hurrying people or truly allowing them enough time to speak. The task force is working at a feverish pace (it is supposed to report to the Oregon Legislature in January). But if any attendees are walking away from these meetings, feeling ignored or slighted, that's inexcusable.
The editorial also points out that an in-depth Oregon State University study of our land use system concluded that its working well.
In dry, bureaucratic language, the study even cautions that the task force shouldn't be too eager to overhaul the system. "While recommended changes deserve full consideration,'' the study concludes, "they need to be made with careful deliberation regarding how changes might affect the state's ability to maintain a system that, based on intensive, objective analysis, generally meets its goals."
That's the truth. But those who want to see laws tilted in favor of over-development, urban sprawl, and destruction of irreplaceable resource land aren't much interested in facts. Dollar signs make excellent blinders.
I suspect one reason Mike Thorne brushed off my wife with such little courtesy is that he was ticked off at another opinion piece in that day's Oregonian: "A success story that's well worth protecting." More truth:
A recent study done for the Big Look Task Force by Oregon State University's Institute for Natural Resources found "an overall consensus that Oregon's land-use program has been effective in preserving the agricultural land base."
The task force is asking the wrong questions. Instead of offering proposals to open up more rural land for development, it should be initiating proposals to increase economic stability in rural communities, including infrastructure improvements for the agricultural economy.
Oregon agriculture is doing well. Our land-use planning system has played a key role in helping Oregon farmers prosper. This is no time to weaken land-use planning and put Oregon agriculture -- and Oregon's economy -- in jeopardy.
Yes, one of the authors was Eric Stachon, a 1000 Friends staff member. But the other author was Gary Rhinhart, a fourth-generation dry land wheat farmer in Umatilla County.
Listen up, Mr. Thorne. Oregonians don't want your task force messing with what makes Oregon such a great place to live and work: a well-crafted balance between environmental protections and economic development.