A few weeks ago a new sign went up along Liberty Road S, just north of Spring Lake Estates, where my wife and I live. It meant a lot to me, for reasons I'll explain.
Here's a photo of the land being offered for sale. The property extends beyond the crest of the hill. The acreage suitable for a vineyard is shown in the photograph I took, which includes a shadow of me taking the photo.
Back in 2005 I wrote my first blog post about these 217 acres, "Measure 37 hits close to our home."
For a lot of people, Measure 37 is a legal abstraction. For us, it means 215 nearby acres of farmland may become a subdivision. These rolling hills along Liberty Road about five miles south of the Salem city limits currently are zoned EFU (exclusive farm use).
If the Measure 37 applicants have their way 80 homes will be built and 80 wells will be dug in an area that already is designated as groundwater limited. I call that eventuality AFU (all...up; you can guess the rest of the acronym).
Measure 37 was a property rights initiative that voters mistakenly approved in 2004. It gave property owners the right to develop in accord with the zoning that was in place prior to Oregon's pioneering land use laws being put in place in 1973.
For five years my wife and I led our neighborhood's fight against this proposed subdivision. Laurel started off being the main subdivision battler. Then I took over. It was the toughest thing I've ever done. There were so many twists and turns, I'd get dizzy if I tried to describe them all.
In 2010 a Circuit Court judge ruled in favor of our neighborhood following the passage of Measure 49 in 2007, which negated most of Measure 37. I wrote about the victory in "Circuit Court reverses Marion County commissioners."
Last Friday our rural south Salem neighborhood got some great news: in Marion County Circuit Court Judge Nely Johnson reversed the Marion County Board of Commissioners' approval of Ridge View Estates, a 217 acre, 43 lot Measure 37 subdivision on Liberty Road.
That dry language didn't begin to capture how I felt, in part because it took time to realize what preserving the 217 acres from becoming a subdivision development meant to me. I've tried to do this over the years in some other blog posts, notably, "Judge's final decision on Laack subdivision: the meaning for me."
In this post I want to talk about the meaning this neighborhood land use fight has had for me. Hopefully I can share some ideas that will resonate with people who have no interest in land use issues, but can relate to the general nature of this sort of experience: working really hard on something, for a long time, when there is no guarantee of success.
As is the case with most things in life. Such as...
Raising a child. Pursuing a college undergraduate or graduate degree. Starting a business. Aiming for a martial arts black belt. Cultivating a happy marriage. Seeking better health. Writing a book for publication.
I've done all of the above, plus a lot more in my sixty-two years of living. Your list will be different, as the activities people engage in and the goals they pursue are marvelously diverse.
Now I can add "Struggling to save a neighborhood's water supply." A new activity, one of the most intense, difficult, and complex things I've ever done. But the meaning-of-life lessons I've learned in the process are extensions of earlier lessons.
I don't want to repeat what I said in that 2010 post.
I haven't even re-read it, because this is 2018, and I'm now 69, not 62. How I feel today about the sign that went up offering 111 acres of vineyard property for sale, along with an additional 106 acres, is different from how I felt eight years ago.
What I want to say now, in this age of Trump, when many people are feeling disillusioned, disheartened, and disturbed about where our country is heading, is this:
Citizen activism is both tremendously important and tremendously satisfying. I readily admit that the satisfying part obviously is most acutely felt when activism leads to success, as it did in the case of our fight against the subdivision.
But though this is a truism, it's a truth that needs repeated saying -- usually it's impossible to tell whether a fight is winnable. So the activist has to step into a battle without knowing if their efforts will produce a victory.
Writing those words reminded me that here in Salem, Jackie Leung stepped up to challenge incumbent city councilor Steve McCoid in the Ward 4 race last May. Most people didn't think Leung had a chance. Yet she won. A national example is the surprising victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over 10-term incumbent Democrat Joe Crowley.
You just never know. Well, except for this. If potential citizen activists don't try to make a difference, they can know for sure that their not-doing will lead to no change.
What kept me going during our five year fight against the Measure 37 subdivision was a conviction that I needed to do everything within my power to stop this threat to our neighborhood's surface and groundwater. I paid as much attention to tiny details as to grand strategy.
In the end, and I could only know this looking back, not forward, a few of those details played an outside role in our eventually successful legal battle. Again, though, I couldn't tell this at the time. All I could do was hope that a bunch of small things would add up to a large thing.
When I drive by the sign advertising the property for sale, I feel good.
Sure, there are many things larger than 217 acres of rural south Salem land. But the older I get, and I'm getting pretty damn old, I'm finding it more and more difficult to distinguish between the BIG things in life and the small things.
Is saving 217 acres from becoming a subdivision a major or minor accomplishment? I have no idea. All I know is that when I look at the still vacant land, that sight means a lot to me. I even imagine a scene that likely won't ever happen, but still manages to elicit a few wet spots in my eyes.
I'm near death. At my request, I'm taken in a wheelchair to a wide spot on Liberty Road where my wife and I can have a view of what has become a successful vineyard. Laurel holds my hand. I say to her, "Hey, way back when, we did something good here, didn't we?" She smiles. No more words are needed. We both know what we feel.
Uhh, wouldn't a large vineyard threaten your water supply: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irrigation_in_viticulture?
Posted by: Jim Scheppke | July 15, 2018 at 10:03 PM
Oregon's Land Use Planning is better than most states. Senate Bill 100 was enacted in 1973, and was based on the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 in the U.K. After World War there was a huge need for additional housing when the troops came home, got married, and needed family housing. The Act was intended to preserve the countryside, and created strict Urban Growth Boundaries around all towns and cities. So when you take a train ride out of a British city you go from urban to rural with no transition. It is quite dramatic. In Oregon we slipped up and we allowed acreage estates around the edges of cities. This proposed subdivision is an example of that. It would have been a lot better if we could have prevented "the estates for the rich". It is ironic that many of the land use attorneys and proponents of high density living (for the rest of us) actually live in large homes on acreage lots around cities.
Posted by: Geoffrey James | July 16, 2018 at 08:51 AM
I am glad we preserve farm land but there is a downside to what has happened-- higher and higher prices for homes and homesites. This is not just happening because of people wanting to move here but because there are less homes to buy than in states where development has been encouraged. I live part of the year in Arizona and see the different view there and how it has kept housing costs down.
Posted by: Rain Trueax | July 16, 2018 at 09:36 AM
You view yourself as some kind of crusader, an "activist" who battled some injustice. In reality you are self-centered, a person with no empathy for others or the ability to sense true justice. You and your wife live next door to this property only because the owner was able to subdivide it before the land use laws restricted it. It was identical land to the neighboring property. You got your homesite and the ability to live in a rural setting, but you don't want anyone else to have the same right.
My father and his three partners purchased the property you speak of in the early 70's with the hope that over the years Salem would grow out that way and it would become more valuable and a good investment. The planning laws which changed their zoning came after they had owned it, and classifying it as farm land when it is very marginal property for growing most anything. Dad and his partners held onto the property for decades. He passed away many years ago, as have some of his partners, without seeing their investment hopes realized. The Measure 37 claim was a good one and exactly what Measure 37 intended. It would have been nice for the elderly remaining partner to see the dream he and his partners had envisioned become a reality. Instead, because of the political climate and governmental bias against Meadure 37, and yes, partially because of your efforts to keep any others from having what you and your wife have, the claim was denied and the land has remained vacant, denying the property rights the deceased and remaining owner had when they made the decision to purchase it. That does not make you a hero, it makes you selfish.
Posted by: Tim Eide | July 18, 2018 at 08:10 AM
Tim Eide, facts matter. You presented a very misleading view of what went on with that property. I need to correct your misstatements.
(1) Your father and the other owners of the property had a chance to develop it at the same time as Spring Lake Estates, where my wife and I live. Leroy Laack, the "lead" owner in the subdivision fight, said that he decided to wait on development in the early 70's for business reasons (he didn't think lots would sell, given the Spring Lake Estates development). So there was a chance to make the land into a subdivision early on, which the owners of the property decided not to do.
(2) Our neighborhood was 100% against the subdivision once it was learned that it would threaten our ground water (wells) and surface water (springs that feed a creek that provides water for Spring Lake, which had senior water rights). A Marion County hearing officer ruled that a hydrogeological study occur before subdivision approval to make sure there was enough water for both the subdivision homes and the neighboring area.
But the Marion County commissioners ignored the hearing officer and approved the subdivision on very weak political grounds. Two of the three, Milne and Brentano, were strong property rights advocates. So your statement that the subdivision didn't happen because of "government bias against Measure 37" isn't true. The bias of the commissioners was very much in favor of Measure 37 applicants. Here's a post about the water issue:
(3) The owners of the property started illegal construction of roads without a permit after Measure 49 was passed. This ended up being one of the reasons a judge eventually ruled in our favor. We played by the rules. The owners of the property did not. Pretty clearly, they hoped Marion County would look the other way as they bulldozed the property without necessary permits. Here's a blog post about this issue:
(4) The judge who ruled in our favor had strong grounds for her decision. Again, our neighborhood's fight against the subdivision wasn't selfish. It was an effort to protect our own property rights, which include the right to not have our wells and community lake go dry because a neighboring subdivision was built on EFU (exclusive farm use) land. By the way, farmers testified that property would be great for growing grapes, and that's how it currently is being marketed. The soils are excellent for that purpose, despite what you said. Here's a post about the judge's ruling:
The facts were on our side. The property owners had the political backing of Commissioners Patti Milne and Sam Brentano, but that wasn't enough in the end, because we had the backing of Oregon law and the facts in this case.
Posted by: Brian Hines | July 18, 2018 at 10:25 AM
Thank you, Brian, for this trip down memory lane. Facts do matter, the law including senior water rights remain relevant and enforceable. I am pleased a vineyard is in the future.
Posted by: E.M. | July 21, 2018 at 09:31 PM