Yesterday a guy phoned me who said he was a Wall Street Journal reporter. We talked about Oregon's land use policies for a while. Then he called again and read me a quote that he wanted to use in his story.
It must not have been an April Fool's joke, because today I searched Google News for "Brian Hines" and found this on the Wall Street Journal web site: Oregon Pear Growers Sour on Land Law.
Download Wall Street Journal story
The reporter, Joel Millman, didn't say what his story was about. He told me that he'd come across my testimony on HB 2229, which ended up passing (with bipartisan support in the House) after being amended in the 2009 Oregon legislative session.
Download HB 2229 testimony PDF
I didn't like how the original version of the bill would have allowed counties to rezone farm and forest land with minimal public hearings and involvement.
It struck me as a backdoor way to get around Measure 49, which in 2007 restored valuable provisions of Oregon land use law that had been weakened by Measure 37 in 2004. Since 62% of Oregon voters favored protecting farm and forest land via Measure 49, HB 2229 appeared to be an insult to the public will.
When I first read the Wall Street Journal story, naturally I focused on the part that contained my quote:
Growers like Mr. Lowry joined with Medford's delegation to the state legislature this year in an unsuccessful effort to lobby to change the land-use law.
Environmentalists and local activists argue that loosening the restrictions on agricultural land sales would give developers an inside track over ordinary homeowners.
"Citizens in general, and local residents in particular, would be almost entirely shut out of the rezoning process," says Brian Hines, a representative of a neighborhood group called Keep Our Water Safe Committee.
Then I read the story more carefully. I learned that pear growers in southern Oregon are upset because they can't sell their farmland for development into subdivisions and such.
I couldn't muster up much sympathy for them. The growers knew how the land was zoned when they acquired it. And one large company is in financial trouble because of a leveraged buyout of Harry & David.
My attitude: tough luck. You take your risks, and you take your rewards/lumps.
Meanwhile, the community is divided over land-use rules, especially in light of a looming crisis involving Harry & David. Wall Street private-equity king Bruce Wasserstein purchased Harry & David in 2004 for $252.9 million, anticipating its future sale through an initial public offering. But when a poor 2006 Christmas season put those plans on hold, the Wasserstein group instead floated $245 million in debt.
Allowing the company to sell land and raise cash might stabilize Medford's biggest employer, and protect more than a thousand Oregon jobs. But critics say any dispensation would jettison environmental protections while offering a bailout to owners who engaged in a reckless leveraged buyout.
The story talked about how some pear growers supposedly want to sell for development farmland that is close to an urban growth boundary and relocate to cheaper land farther away in the countryside.
Doesn't it take quite a few years to plant pear trees and have them start producing fruit?
I'm kind of skeptical that a farmer would go to all that trouble after making a bunch of money selling developable land at $100,000 an acre (rather than the $10,000 the story says orchard land is worth). Taking the money and running, rather than farming, seems more likely.
Times are tough for farmers, along with lots of other people. But the solution isn't for Oregon to relax land use laws to deal with temporary financial problems facing certain agricultural sectors.
People and businesses are attracted to Oregon because it isn't like other states. It's better in many ways, including our commitment to preserving environmental treasures such as irreplaceable farm and forest land.
A hundred years from now, I hope pears are still grown in the Rogue River Valley. And Harry & David gift baskets still appear under Christmas trees across the country. If we keep Oregon's land use laws strong, my hopes will be reality.
(Naturally I had to fork over $2 to buy a paper copy of today's Wall Street Journal, even though I don't like adding to Rupert Murdoch's profit margin. The Oregon pear growers story was pretty prominently featured on page 3. If you squint really hard, maybe you can see my name in column five. Heck, I'll help you out...)