Malheur County land use bill pushed by border board draws controversy

Gov. Kate Brown chats with Shawna Peterson, chair of the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Board, during a visit to Ontario. A land use bill pushed by the border board is being debated in the state Capitol. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

VALE – Supporters of a proposed bill to open inferior agriculture acreage to residential development in Malheur County say the plan will help the local economy. 

The proposed law – House Bill 2456 – is considered the cornerstone of the legislative effort by the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Board, a seven-member committee of local people. 

The board is intended to spark job growth and economic development along the border with Idaho in Malheur County. 

The bill contains several safeguards, including new amendments, to protect high-value farmland, said Shawna Peterson, chair of the border board. 

“It has to be non-viable farm ground that hasn’t been farmed in the last three years,” said Peterson. 

The proposal would allow development of one “residential unit per lot or parcel of two acres or more.” 

House Bill 2456 also specifies that “approval would not result in a cumulative total of more than 200 acres rezoned by the county.” 

That means no more than 100 new homes on rezoned land. 

The bill also requires that the rezoned land can’t impact “accepted farm or forest practices on surrounding lands devoted to farm or forest use.” 

Any land classed as riparian or wildlife habitat in the past 10 years wouldn’t be eligible for the special rezoning. 

Another element, said Peterson, is any attempt to rezone must be sought by the property owner. 

“For it to even happen a landowner would have to be interested in selling for that purpose. It is fully optional to the landowner,” said Peterson. 

The bill is now before the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, where lawmakers reviewed it early in February. 

At a committee hearing the Oregon Farm Bureau voiced opposition to the bill as did 1000 Friends of Oregon and the Oregon Land and Water Alliance, two conservation groups. 

Meriel Darzen, a rural lands staff attorney for the Portland-based 1000 Friends of Oregon, wrote in submitted testimony that the bill would “substantially weaken Oregon’s agriculture economy and the land use program that supports it.”

Darzen said the proposal offers “a false promise that if only more raw land were available, economic development would occur and housing issues will be solved. Not only is raw land very expensive to serve with infrastructure, but true economic development is more complex,” Darzen wrote. 

Paul Lipscomb, vice president of the Sisters-based Oregon Land and Water Alliance, wrote to the committee that the underlying premise of the bill is wrong. 

“The unstated assumption in HB 2465 seems to be that Oregon’s existing land use laws deter growth, and that an exemption from land use laws to permit additional disbursed residential developments will promote growth. 

However, there is no evidence offered or cited to support this assumption. And we believe nothing could be further from the truth,” wrote Lipscomb.

Palmer Mason, a senior policy advisor for the Department of Land Conservation and Development, wrote in submitted testimony to the committee that rezoning exclusive farm use land could lead “to more conflicts between existing farms and newly-allowed homes.”

“Noise, dust, and farm traffic – these activities may be viewed as annoyances by residents, leading to complaints and requests to additional restrictions on agriculture operations,” he wrote.

State Rep. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, the sponsor of House Bill 2456, said people are “jumping to conclusions” and they should “read the bill.”

“It is not a huge land grab. It’s 200 total acres,” said Findley. “It can’t be high-value farm ground and it has to meet all of these criteria.”

One key revision to the bill, said Peterson, is the creation of a review board. The local board would consist of a member of the farming community, a border board member, a member of the county court, and someone from the county planning and zoning commission. 

The board would be required to conduct at least one public hearing on any rezoning matter and then provide a written opinion to the county. 

The important part of the bill people should see, said border board member Tiffany Cruickshank, is the farmland in question doesn’t consist of prime soils. 

“I think people just read the summary and think this group wants to rezone EFU land to residential. That is not what this is,” said Cruickshank.

Cruickshank said the border board already received positive feedback from some property owners in the county about the proposal. 

“We’ve had a lot of interest in landowners taking advantage of land they can’t farm. Ground that is classified six or seven and they don’t have water rights and it is non-producing land for them,” said Cruickshank.

Peterson said the border board is also reviewing other requirements such as a check sheet that outlines for prospective buyers they are moving next to farm land.

“It would reiterate you are planning to move into a rural area and there are some things you will encounter – tractors, dirt, dust – and you agree and understand that,” said Peterson.

The motivation for the proposal is economic development and the fear Malheur County is losing out to Idaho where land use laws are less stringent.

People are taking advantage of Oregon’s typically higher wages to work in the county but living across the border, said Cruickshank.

“When people work in Oregon and live in Idaho they are not sending their kids to our schools, they are not paying property taxes in your community. It has a ripple effect and we really need to entice people to not only work here but live here,” said Cruickshank.

Cruickshank said even a modest boost in housing could help the county’s economy. 

While the Malheur County’s unemployment rate remains low – around 3.7 percent – it has one of the highest poverty rates, at 22 percent, in the state. 

Also, compared to Payette County in Idaho, Malheur County is falling behind in several crucial areas. For example, according to the Census Bureau, Malheur County’s median household income in 2017 was $37,112. In Payette County the median household income was $48,447. In Payette County the poverty rate of 13 percent.

Housing starts in Payette County also outpace Malheur County’s. According to Census Bureau data, in 2017 108 houses were built in Payette County and 23 in Malheur County.

Peterson said she is confident the legislation would safeguard prime farm ground but also help the county.

Peterson said the border board has reached out to members of the Malheur County Farm Bureau and held several meetings with its members on the proposed bill.

“Those meetings have been really productive, and we feel good about it. We really want their (Malheur County Farm Bureau) input,” said Peterson.

Findley said the proposed legislation is a long way from approval.

“It’s going slow. But it is a good bill,” said Findley.

Reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377. 

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