It's apparent that Oregon's Big Look Task Force shouldn't have much attention paid to its recommendations in the 2009 legislative session.
This group was supposed to step back and take, well, a big look at Oregon's land use system.
The notion was that Oregonians in Action and 1000 Friends of Oregon, the yin and yang of land use advocacy groups, would find common ground in reasonable changes that balanced individual property rights and communal environmental protection.
Didn't happen. Today's Salem Statesman Journal had a front page story on the Big Look recommendations, "Plan boosts local input on land use." 1000 Friends of Oregon doesn't like that notion. Neither do I.
You can read 1000 Friends' reasons here. They make good sense.
First and most important, where's the problem local control is supposed to solve? The Task Force has come up with a solution in search of a problem.
As the Oregon League of Conservation Voters says:
A widely-spread misconception repeated in today's Oregonian is that somehow our statewide land use system, which has state standards that guide local plans, is "one size fits all."
Our laws have different requirements for different types of farmland and forestland, different requirements for lands in the Willamette Valley and outside of it, different requirements for different size cities, and so forth. Five our 19 land use goals only apply to certain areas of the state.
The Oregonian article says that 1000 Friends of Oregon called the local control proposal "a very bad idea." So much for bringing opposing groups together. The Big Look Task Force has been casting its gaze mainly in one direction: more development on irreplaceable farm and forest lands.
Which its very own survey found is opposed by a clear majority of Oregonians. When asked, "Would you support using public money to permanently protect farm and forest lands from urban development?" almost twice as many (48%) said Yes rather than No (27%).
Those who attended Big Look Task Force meetings or filled out an online survey were even more enthusiastic about protecting resource lands: 60% to 29%.
Yet somehow the Task Force concluded that what Oregon needs now is more paving over of farm and forest land. Crazy.
As the 1000 Friends critique points out, remapping these resource lands is the wrong thing to do:
This proposal destabilizes Oregon’s outstanding agriculture economy at exactly the wrong time. Agriculture is an ever-increasing economic engine, topping almost $5 billion in gross farm income in 2007. Agriculture is responsible for over 10% of Oregon’s jobs and is the second largest traded-sector part of the economy. And it has been amazingly stable and strong – growing almost every year for the past three decades, and in a variety of crops located in every part of the state: wheat, nurseries products, livestock production, fruits & vegetables, orchard fruits and nuts, and more.
Oregon agriculture, unlike other sectors of the economy, is strong and will not abandon the state by moving operations overseas. We should be thanking Oregon’s farmers, not putting their family businesses at risk by sweeping the deck clean of past experience with the planning tools the Task Force earlier determined work well. Remapping is expensive, controversial, and will create years of unneeded turmoil and uncertainty in our rural communities. We urge you to drop this concept.
Oregon agriculture has been changing with the times. Our neighborhood is fighting a proposed 217 acre Measure 37 subdivision that wants to "plant" 43 homes on high-value farmland.
Grass seed and Christmas trees used to be grown on properties like this one in the south Salem hills. Now vineyards dot the countryside along Liberty Road between our house and the Salem city limits. This shows that farmland needs to be protected, not remapped, because new and better uses for Oregon's agricultural lands keep being found.
The Big Look Task Force is bent on loosening Oregon's pioneering, and hugely successful, land use policies. My wife found that out when she tried to testify at a Big Look meeting and was disrespected.
If the Task Force truly was interested in reflecting the views of Oregonians, it would listen to them. Instead, it has produced proposed legislation that makes me wonder, "Who the heck ordered that up?"
The 2009 Legislature will have lots of serious problems to deal with. Land use isn't one of them. The Institute of Natural Resources at Oregon State University prepared a report for the Big Look Task Force that concluded, "Oregon's land use system is sound."
Every governmental task force likes to say, "Our report won't sit on a shelf and gather dust." Well, in this case that's just what should happen.
I'll end with a piece by Mitch Rohse, an experienced and respected land use planner. He explains more cogently than I have why the Big Look Task Force is on the wrong track.
By Mitch Rohse:
As the Big Look Task Force prepares its report to the 2009 legislature, its chief conclusion seems to be a sound-bite - namely, that "one size doesn't fit all." A November 15 Register Guard article, for example, says this:
"'There's no question that [Task Force members) are hitting the nail on the head, because their proposal addresses the age-old problem that one size doesn't fit all,'" said Rep. Bill Garrard, R-Klamath Falls. The recommendations look similar to what House Republicans have been drawing up for consideration in 2009, Garrard said."
The tragedy of such silliness is that it substitutes political posturing for real improvement of Oregon's statewide planning program. The program most assuredly could be made better, but it won't be if changes to it are driven by platitudes, bromides, and banalities such as "one size doesn't fit all."
And what is wrong with the one-size complaint? Three things:
First, one size very often does fit all. Perhaps the best example is our federal Constitution. Its Bill of Rights lists quite a number of policies that apply to all Americans and that seem to have fit us rather well for two centuries. If Oregon is indeed a state, with residents linked by some common history, culture, geography, and laws, then it is neither wrong nor unusual to have statewide policy for land use planning. We have statewide laws and policies on matters as diverse as speed limits, schools, taxes, and water quality. Surely then we can (and should) have statewide laws and policies on a topic as important as land use.
Second, the "one-size" complaint vastly overstates the uniformity of Oregon's planning system. In reality, our state has planning laws that differ markedly from one region to another and by size of community. The Portland metropolitan area is subject to a regional planning system unlike that found in any other part of the state. The state's coastal zone - seven counties and more than 30 cities - has its own special planning system, as does the Columbia Gorge. Eastern Oregon's grazing and rangelands are subject to different (and less stringent) state planning requirements than farms in the Willamette Valley. More than half of Oregon's cities are exempt from many state planning requirements simply because they have populations smaller than 2,500 people. There are many more examples - too many to list here.
Finally, the "one-size" complaint is mostly a red herring. A sizable majority of Oregonians have strongly supported statewide planning through three decades (and three statewide initiatives). Those who oppose it therefore find it impolitic to argue openly that the program should be eliminated. Instead, they cloak their opposition in generalizations such as "one-size shouldn't fit all." That's understandable: it's just good politics.
But the Task Force needs to look beyond such politics. It needs to recognize that weakening the program to assuage those who want it eliminated is a compromise that will benefit no one. Those who support statewide planning will be frustrated to see it weakened once again. Those who oppose it will continue to oppose it: they will just be emboldened to complain more loudly.
As Solomon recognized several millennia ago, compromise doesn't always bring the best result: cutting the baby in half will satisfy neither its real mother nor the woman who falsely claims it. Let's hope for similar wisdom from the Task Force. To refine Oregon's statewide planning program on the basis of careful analysis and nuanced reason would be wise. To change it in response to sound-bite complaints about one size not fitting all would be foolish.
Mitch Rohse, AICP