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Rural housing bill, once stalled in the face of resistance moves to Gov’s desk for signing

After a two-year slog, lawmakers cleared hurdles to allow Malheur County to ease its housing shortage by putting homes on farmland where they were once prohibited.

Now, Malheur County is waiting for Gov. Tina Kotek to sign Senate Bill 70, changing the definition of “high-value farmland” to clear the way for more rural housing.

Shawna Peterson, executive director of the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Board, said once the governor signs the bill, the county can design the process that will be the “nuts and bolts of the rezoning process.”

The new county ordinance has mostly been completed, according to Peterson. Under Senate Bill 16, passed in 2021, any rezoning of farmland would require a public hearing before a review board appointed by the Malheur County Court.

The 2021 legislation allowed rezoning some farmland into a minimum of two-acre lots with no more than 200 acres. The intent was to allow homes that are limited to agriculture but not considered viable for farming.

Such rezoning must be considered by a new county board that will include representatives from the farming community, the Border Board, the Malheur County Court and the Malheur County Planning Commission. The committee will be appointed by the county court.

Land that qualifies for rezoning must not have been farmed in the past three years, is not high-value farmland, does not have premium soils and must not have the potential to turn a profit from ag-related activities.

The original legislation left a technical glitch that stopped the county from moving ahead. State Sen. Lynn Findley, the Vale Republican, proposed a fix that was expected to move easily through the 2023 Legislature. Instead, it encountered strong opposition that nearly killed the legislation.

Peterson said determining how many lots might open up for building will depend on property owners seeking rezoning. She said she has heard a lot of interest from owners, builders, and residents, so she thinks there will be activity relatively quickly.

Eric Evans, Malheur County planning director, said that roughly 10 people had indicated an interest in using the new zoning process before the technical glitch was discovered.

Evans said the Portland-based consultant firm Winterbrook Planning, who the county has done work with in the past, contracted with the county to, in part, complete a mapping project that includes properties that meet the criteria and also has developed the ordinance and the applications.

Altogether, Evans said 200 acres are available for rezoning and, therefore, a maximum of 100 lots would be available and would have to be at least 2 acre lots.

He said he does not know the next steps since this has never been done. Evans said that will become more clear once someone submits an application to rezone and then advances to a hearing in front of the committee.

“This will be a learning game,” Evans said. “Nothing like this has ever happened in the state of Oregon.”

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