A legislative fix intended to unlock housing in Malheur County is facing a flood of opposition that could hinder years of efforts to address the region’s shortage of affordable homes. A technical definition in state law that is blocking housing on farmland in irrigation districts prompted Senate Bill 70, proposed by state Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale. The legislation aims to clear that hurdle by changing the legal definition for certain high-value farmlands. However, the bill, assigned to the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, saw significant pushback from several conservation groups during a public hearing Wednesday, Feb. 8. No more action has been scheduled for the bill.
The legislation two years ago was proposed as a limited way to create new home sites on farmland that was of marginal agricultural use. No more than 100 houses would have been allowed in Malheur County under that 2021 reform, proposed by Findley. Critics like Elizabeth Dix, legislative committee chair with the Oregon Sierra Club, said during the hearing that the passage of Senate Bill 16 in 2021 set a bad precedent in eroding Oregon’s land use planning system. That legislation was supposed to open up 200 acres of farmland to housing development in the eastern Oregon border region.
The proposed fix “ would further erode agricultural lands protections,” Dix testified.
Mary Kyle McCurdy, deputy director of 1000 Friends of Oregon, the primary land use watchdog in Oregon, said in an interview that the land in question would not meet the housing challenges facing Malheur County. According to McCurdy, the parcels of land that could be unlocked for homes are not in urban areas and wouldn’t meet the needs of families whose kids are going to schools in Ontario or whose jobs are located in population centers.
McCurdy added that Ontario has available land in its urban growth boundary and more in its urban reserve, which is land set aside for population growth. With that, McCurdy said there is no need to open up farmland.
Shawna Peterson, executive director of the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Board, a public body established to grow the economy within the region and a vital piece of the legislative strategy, said the border board opened up housing incentives to build in the urban growth boundary in Ontario.
She said there is significant demand for housing other than on lots in the urban growth area. There is interest, she said, in small acreage rural residential housing. The initial farmland housing bill was aimed at fulfilling that demand, she said. Peterson said SB 16 was a “sensible way” to build in those areas and honor Oregon’s land-use priority of protecting agricultural ground. Peterson said the land in the urban growth boundary is desirable and appropriate for small lot subdivisions. But people who want rural “ranchette” homes are leaving the Oregon border region to build in Idaho, she said.
Additionally, she said that much of the urban land is productive soil and farmland better left in production than swallowed up for housing even if it is near the cities.
Under Senate Bill 16, any rezoning of farmland would require a public hearing before a review board appointed by the Malheur County Court. The legislation required the review board include a representative from the farming community, a border board member, a court member and someone from the planning commission.
The bill details the rezoning of some farmland into a minimum of two-acre lots that could total no more than 200 acres. Owners would have to establish that the property is of limited value for agricultural.
But as county officials moved to implement that change, they discovered that a provision of the legislation relied on boundaries of irrigation districts. The unexpected result is that mapping where homes could go in Malheur County proved problematic.
Mapping, Peterson said, is one barrier. She said the irrigation district maps aren’t accessible through a geographic mapping system that would provide details about a parcel’s characteristics.
Alexis Biddle, legislative and policy coordinator with the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development, said in a written testimony that while the department is not taking a position on SB70, the agency recommends no residential development be allowed within irrigation districts within the eastern Oregon border region.
“This approach,” Biddle said, “would eliminate the identified development barrier in more areas within the (border region) but not make available a wider variety of higher quality soils for development – mitigating loss of high-value farmland as a statewide resource.”
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