Malheur County moves ahead to permit homes on marginal farmland

Shawna Peterson, chair of the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Board, says her board felt it’s important for the new zoning process to be well defined. (Enterprise/File)

VALE – A $50,000 infusion from the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Board will help the county implement a zoning change to allow inferior farmland to be converted for residential homes.

Legislation sponsored by state Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale and passed in July clears the way for two-acre lots with no more than 200 acres total to be set aside for houses. Under the plan, property would be rezoned from farming under 15 benchmarks that must be met.

The Malheur County Court will appoint a four-member board of local residents to evaluate such decisions.

The legislation also requires a public hearing on each petition to rezone farm property.

This represents a victory for the border board, which pushed similar legislation in 2019 only to see it scuttled.

The bill, though, only outlined the general elements of the process, leaving the details to county.

“The bill set up the framework but the county will implement the actual rezone process,” said Shawna Peterson, executive director of the border board.

The process is complex and time-consuming, said Eric Evans, county planning director.

“This type of legislation has never been done before. We don’t really have the time to necessarily put this process together,” said Evans.

Evans requested $50,000 from the border board in August to hire Winterbrook Planning, a Portland land use consultant, to help frame new ordinances and other details to implement the legislation.

The border board approved the money last month.

“It was the border board’s act and I had a lot of question how this legislation is intended,” said Evans. “Are six landowners with six acres apiece eligible? Or can someone come in with two acres here or two acres there?”

Evans said Winterbrook previously helped the county on zoning projects.

“The border board felt it was important enough project to financially support the continuing work so the process gets up and running. We want this process well outlined,” said Peterson.

Peterson said the board received a “a lot of inquiries and there seems to be a lot of interest.”

“I think the process will be done, hopefully, before the end of the year,” said Peterson.

Evans said the goal is to create a “nice solid process.”

“I want to be thoughtful and maximize the benefit of this to everybody in Malheur County,” he said.

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