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The Oregon Example: Statewide Planning Works

In 1972, prompted by rapid immigration from California and other states, Oregon enacted one of the most comprehensive state wide planning laws in the country in an effort to curb sprawl.

The state law required that all communities—even small rural communities—create a comprehensive land use plan that included urban growth boundaries to contain and direct growth. Beyond the urban growth boundary, most private land was designated either farm or timberlands, which, with only a few exceptions, could not be subdivided.

Though Oregon’s population has grown by more than a million and a half people (more than the entire population of Montana) since the early 1970s, the state’s sprawl has remained under reasonable control.

I first became acquainted with Oregon’s land use law about 15 years ago. I was visiting a friend in eastern Oregon. It was a hot summer evening. We were sitting in the shade behind his house sipping cold beers and looking up at some grassy bluffs—golden in the setting sun—that rose up behind his house.

Pointing to the slope with his beer bottle, he told me that in winter hundreds of mule deer could be seen grazing there. Noting that the bluffs would provide fantastic views, I cynically quipped that the deer would someday be gone when a subdivision was built upon the bluffs. He quickly responded—“never happen”—those bluffs are outside of the urban growth boundary. He then proceeded to give me a brief overview of the state’s far-sighted land use law which among other things protected a lot of the state’s lower elevation big game winter range from development. Besides winter range, the law also protects farmers and ranchers from rising land prices.

A few years after my visit to my friend, I moved to Eugene, Oregon to attend graduate school at the University of Oregon and had another encounter with Oregon’s unique land laws. At the time I rented a house seven miles from the university.

Surrounding my one-acre rental property was a farm. I got to know my neighbor—a young man who had grown up in a city back East–who moved to Oregon in the 1980s and bought up a small farm. He was actually making enough money to pay his bills, including the mortgage on his farmland and take long vacations in the Caribbean or Mexico each winter.

After I got to know him well enough to inquire, I asked him how he could ever afford to buy farmland, particularly in the fertile Willamette Valley, just outside the second largest urban area in the state. Knowing that residual lots in that neighborhood were selling for around $50,000 at the time, I could not imagine how he could buy land and pay it off with farm produce.

He explained to me that since his farmland was outside of the urban growth boundary it had no value for subdivisions—only farming. As consequence, though residential lots might sell for $50,000 or more an acre, farmland, even farmland on Eugene’s doorstep was only going for $2000 an acre when he bought his farm. Plus low property taxes for non-urban lands have made it easier for large land owners like farmers to hang on to property. Since 1974 Oregon land owners have received reduced property taxes worth more than $4.8 billion dollars.

In part due to these strict land use laws, and despite the addition of more than a million people to the state, only 144,000 acres of farmland have been converted to other uses since 1982—and just 60,000 acres were for subdivisions in urban growth boundaries. By comparison, Colorado a state with nearly the same population and size as Oregon, but without state wide zoning, has seen nearly 2 million acres of Ag land converted to other uses since 1992 (though not all new use is necessarily housing). Not surprisingly the physical footprint of Denver, a city about the same population as Portland, occupies five times as much land area.

The state’s land use law has interesting consequences for politics. In most of the West whenever someone criticizes livestock grazing, ranchers pull out their weapon of last resort—criticize us too much and we’ll sell off our property and subdivide.

Which would you rather have condos or cows?

This causes even most environmental groups to shutter with fear and they remain silence about livestock impacts or even take up the chorus and champion ranching as the last barrier standing between rampant development and a bucolic landscape. In Oregon that debate isn’t an issue, nor is it a realistic threat because ranchers can’t subdivide—unless they lie within the urban growth boundary. Not surprisingly Oregon’s environmental organizations are nearly uniformly aggressive in their efforts to limit or eliminate livestock grazing—at least on public lands.

Not only does Oregon’s state wide zoning keep farmland affordable, but it has not contributed to a significant rise in housing cost, in part, because the urban boundary is periodically adjusted to permit additional growth as needed. Though critics suggest that Oregon’s strict zoning laws has lead to increased property costs, a comparison of housing prices in Oregon with comparatively located communities suggests otherwise. Eugene, where I used to live still has more affordable housing than say Missoula, Bozeman,Santa Fe, Boise, and many other growing communities with little or lax land use laws. And though Portland’s housing prices have risen substantially, it is still the least expensive West Coast city to buy a home. Compared to Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Barbara, or LA, Portland’s homes are relatively affordable. This is not surprising since lot price—the only thing affected by land use restrictions– accounts for only 14 percent of the cost of a Portland home.

Needless to say these strict land use laws have other benefits as well. Because communities know where future growth is going to occur, they can build the infrastructure to support it—the highways, sewers, and parks– in advance of growth and alleviate congestion that would otherwise develop. As a consequence communities are faced with fewer unfunded mandates from developers who construct mini-communities beyond urban centers which then demand costly taxpayer financed roads, schools, and/or fire and police service. One study in New Jersey found that without state wide planning houses costs were on average $ 12,000 to $15,000 more.

A shot at the heart of Oregon’s model land use laws was cast in 2004 when Oregon voters passed Measure 37 which ostensibly was designated to permit small land owners whose properties lay beyond the urban growth boundary to subdivide. The passage of the initiative—which was largely funded by large land owners, ranching, timber and development interests—is getting second thoughts from Oregon’s politicians and residents alike. A recent survey showed that 61% of the voters want the law repealed or modified. Despite what you may have heard about how the recently passed Measure 37 had gutted Oregon’s state wide zoning, the measure only affects land owners who purchased property prior to 1972—all other lands are still under state wide zoning laws. Thus Oregon’s visionary law still applies to the bulk of the state’s private land base, ensuring that Oregon will remain a leader in land use regulation and protection. Oregon’s state wide zoning is not perfect—it could be tweaked—but it should not be eliminated. It is a model that the rest of the West would do well to emulate.

EDITOR’S NOTE: George Wuerthner is a writer, biologist and well-known opponent of livestock grazing on public lands. He is also a prolific photographer. His images can be viewed by clicking on George Wuerthner Photography.

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  1. Larry Kralj, Environmental Rangers!

    George, much of what you say is true. But you seem to not be presenting the downside of your argument for urban areas. And what might that be? Well, simple. When forced to build within strict geographic limits, EVERY DAMN SQUARE INCH IS BUILT UPON! Take Portland for example. Where there used to be open areas and fields and little forested areas, there are now complex after complex of HUGE apt. complexes! It’s a travesty! It’s ugly! It’s unlivable! I mean, where DO the children play? I don’t think that setting strict limits is the answer. Strict limits need to be set to the POPULATION! Places like Portland and Seattel, etc. have reached their carrying capacity for humanity. That’s all. All problems stem for inordinate, rampant, ill-considered population growth! I remember Portland as a child growing up there until 1969. Now, when I return (which is damn infrequently because I can’t stand it), I can’t believe what has happened to the city. It’s no longer a nice place to live.

  2. I actually have an answer for that question, as I took my nephews around Portland (where they live) not too long ago. They love Pioneer Square, as well as that water fountain play park (although it was too cold for it) downtown. The public squares down by OSU are good too. Also, Forest Park is a good place for them to run around. Finally, there is a park within a five minute walk of where they live in the city.

  3. Larry

    You’re right. Infilling does eliminate some small lots here and there. No system is perfect. But the long term status of such lots is always subject to an uncertain future without planning. By contrast to other states without planning, Oregon’s planning does allow communities to address the concern for open space.

    I can’t speak for Portland, but Eugene where i used to live and still own a home, has a number of planning policies that help to mitigate some of your concerns. For instance, parks and open space are part of the planning process. Planning isn’t just about where highways or housing developments are constructed, it also addresses open space. In Eugene all new subdivisions must incorporate neighborhood parks as part of the construction permitting process.

    Plus as a result of planning, not everyplace can be built upon. In my own neighborhood, there is a wide strip of woodlands along a stream that is off limits for construction because of concerns about wetlands and maintaining water quality for salmon. My own kids played in these woods–and they are literally across the street from my former home.

    In addition to the local park spaces, Eugene has an aggressive parks program that has created a system of city-wide trails and open space and with coordination with the county, is addressing long term conservation needs. For instance in my own neighborhood there is a park at the end of the street with picnic grounds, ball fields, and that sort of thing.

    Two blocks away from my house is a riverside greenway that lines the river for more than 11 miles that includes bike paths, hiking trails, and much more.

    The entire summit ridgeline of the valley surrounding my home is city park and part of a 17 mile ridgeline trail system. In other words, I can walk or ride my bike from my home and then hike a trail for miles.

    If that isn’t enough, there’s a big county park about five miles from my house with miles of trails. And the city, county and BLM have been acquiring thousands of acres for wetlands protection on the city’s western edge, and a new national wildlife refuge is about to be created beyond the wetlands.

    Plus there are literally millions of acres of federal lands surrounding Eugene. One can even take a Eugene city bus from in front of my house and ride it to trailheads that access the Three Sisters Wilderness, plus many other FS trails.

    And the city voters have just passed a local bond measure to fund more park acquisition.

    Do I wish there were even more parks in Eugene–you bet. But with a planning process I know that future concerns about open space are being considered and addressed. Compared to a lot of other western communities that I have visited, what I have seen in Oregon, is vastly superior to the haphazard development and loss of open space that comes without planning.

  4. nice article, and the spirit of it is correct. i live in oregon, and my only disagreement is the cost of housing.

    It seems intuitively obvious to me that our zoning laws have drastically driven up housing prices. Believe me, if any yahoo could subdivide his rural property into tiny lots, the prices would fall.

    And comparing Portland’s prices with “Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Barbara, or LA” is a non starter, since all these communities have zoning laws, which presumably also drive land prices up.

    that’s my one and only concern with our land use laws: it’s damn near impossible for the average person to buy a house.

    Perhaps the answer is to keep our land use laws, continue restricting development outside our UGBs, but greatly expand UGBs to make more lots available inside the UGBs, to drive prices down some.











    George Bernard Shaw

  6. Boy, oh howdy, does that land use planning work in Oreygawn. Intel and Nike are built on the best farm land in the State. Their employees occupy a whole lot more of it. Irrigated row crop ground is no longer affordable in small pieces for conventional farming. It is more valuable to doctors and lawyers who want a piece of ground to putter around on or have a horse farm to keep the trophy bride on a hot horse rather than a hot pool boy in town.

    The hills are being denuded of trees and planted to grapes. Multi million dollar homes are then built on the grounds as farm homes. The land designated EFU (exclusive farm use) cannot be built on unless they are 80 acres or more or can show $80,000 per year in farm gate sales. Thus, we have the alpaca, race horse, whatever pyramid livestock scheme de jour, to have a dollar trade deal between rich guys so they can build a MacMansion on their “farm.” It is actually cheaper than an upscale lot in an upscale community. Small lot farm land is now not available for livelihood farming. It is lifestyle land. The land use laws benefit folks with a lot of money, and drive prices up for the middle class. State rent support in apartments houses the working poor. It is a great system. Without it, big farmers and Weyerhaeuser would have to pay their fair share of property taxes. And to make sure nobody gets to build on their property, the 1000 Friends of Oregon (the 1000 Rich Guys from Portland) go to court to challenge any zone changes. Oregon is close to being feudal in nature.

    Once your government gets to regulate you, they soon want to regulate you even more. Systems development charges, inspection fees, the lists are endless, but it adds to housing costs from the inception of planning. Having to deal with an artificial limit on available land, prices grow even when sales are dropping. That is a sick deal. And subdividers are subject to no end of legal graft. All those parks, open spaces, bike trails are taken in exchange for development rights. And the price added to the homes for sale.

    If farmers think EFU zoning protects them, they should see what the liberals from Portland have on the legislative agenda. No pesticide (a pesticide is any chemical registered to kill a plant or animal or fungus or bacteria) use withing a mile of a school. 30 day notification of pesticide use before application. No agricultural burning. Ag land water runoff regulation. For a place that wants to protect farmland, you have to wonder at how much they want to regulate the farmers, how much control of a farmer’s land use they want. The more “protection” farmland gets, the fewer uses allowed. What “Land Use Law” is about is getting free open space on which to spread sewage solid wastes after treatment (no food for humans can be grown on that land), a place to let the dog run and crap at will, and a chance to grind some new trails down to bedrock with the mountain bike at no cost.

  7. Dear Bearbait:

    Come on, be real. The big mansions are being built all over the West, not just in Oregon. You should travel more and see what is happening in Montana, Colorado and a host of other places.

    Zoning has no influence on rich people wanting to have some acreage about them.

    And I never said that Oregon’s laws protected all farmland–if it falls in the urban growth boundary it can be developed. Indeed, your point makes me think that maybe that should be the next step in regulations–prohibition on conversion of prime farmland to other uses.

  8. As an owner of a multi-million dollar home, I can tell you that while I realize land-use laws are anti-growth and anti-freedom, I love them because they drive the price of my home upwards. Since no one is allowed to build on the farms that surround my home (homes that would provide wonderful access to town for local families and workers), my place is a state-protected treasure.

    Just as is the case with almost any other form of protectionism, *some* people benefit at a value of $X while *all others* pay for it at a cost of $X+. Slap tarrifs on foreign cars and US automakers (and the people they employee) enjoy increased sales due to the artificial boost to competitiveness. Who pays? Everyone who buys a car… they are denied the chance to consider foreign options without a surcharge. In the case of land, the beneficiaries are people like myself and those lucky enough to own a home before the laws are enacted or strengthened. Who pays? The community as a whole because of the greatly reduced economic growth (jobs, incomes) due to a lack of affordable housing near the workplace. The government forces cheap farmland to remain in place (producing crops at a low value) rather than allowing the free market to build homes that are in high demand (and which will provide families a place to live and commute to work).

  9. Harold

    On the surface your statements may seem accurate, however, study after study has shown that planning and zoning reduces taxpayer costs and subsidies. That’s because new development, especially sprawl has many “hidden” costs that all taxpayers bear. It costs taxpayers money to pay for new fire and police services, road construction and upkeep, buses for school transportation, and so forth.

    And then there are the deferred costs–i.e. the extra cost of protecting homes from forest fires, costs of more congestion on highways due more commuters, more air pollution, water pollution from septic systems, and so on. Plus the loss of agricultural lands and green spaces that are close to urban areas where the food is needed, thus adding to the transportation costs of food.

    Finally the uncounted costs or intangibles-lost of sense of community, lack of participation in community matters and events as people are so time constrained commuting in their cars they don’t have time for active social involvement.

    As for your other assertion, that housing is more costly in places with planning, I challenge that assertion. Most of the cost of property has nothing to do with with the cost of bare land. The fact is that cost of land is a small fraction of the total price of a home in most communities. Regional labor costs, and other factors such as amenities available, and so forth determine housing costs. I.e. the old real estate line about the three important things about the cost of real estate– location, location, location.

    I track real estate prices as I travel often, and also own property in three different western states, and one eastern state, so have some sense of housing prices. Most of the West has no planning and very limited zoning. Yet housing in many of these urban areas exceeds the cost of housing in similar sized communities in Oregon. I can assert to you, for instance, the housing prices in Eugene where I own a home (rented) are less expensive than Bozeman Montana area where I also own a home (rented) even though there is virtually no zoning or planning in the Bozeman area. Ditto for other communities scatted around the West. Housing is more affordable in Eugene than in Bozeman, especially for low end buyers. Other Montana communities that I am familiar with including Whitefish, Missoula and Helena are all more expensive than most similar sized communities in Oregon. And the community in Vermont where I live has no zoning or planning at all–(so much for “progressive” Vermont) and the least expensive home currently for sale right now is $250,000 and most range in the $400,000-500,000 range. I assure you that you can find a lot of homes for sale in Eugene area right now for under $250,000, even under $150,000.

    If you go to other Oregon communities, particularly rural ones, you’ll find that housing is very inexpensive.

    Land costs go up with or without zoning if there is a high demand for property in an area. You can’t buy a house in Gardiner Montana adjacent to Yellowstone NP for under $250,000–even a single room shack costs that much. There is no zoning whatever in Gardiner, but it’s adjacent to a national park driving up real estate values. Idaho has no zoning to speak up and you’ll still pay a lot for a house in Boise, Sandpoint, Cour d Alene or Sun Valley. But if you to some small town in the Snake River Plain where no one wants to live, housing is much less expensive. We could find similar examples from throughout the West.

  10. George,

    Would you mind citing one of these many studies that conclude in a quantitative fashion that land regulation reduces costs? You will not be able to cite any valid study because just as with any other form of market intervention, costs increase. The free market *is* aware of the “hidden” costs you mention and they are accounted for. While it is true that, for example, dense housing divisons require more expenditures on police and fire (albeit on an absolute, not per capita basis), any potential increased costs in this respect are more than offset by the lower costs of the housing itself. You certainly wouldnt argue that my home, which has beautiful protected views because of the land regulation all around it, would be as costly if the neighboring farmland was allowed to be turned into a subdivision of affordable condos, would you? Would you think that the condos themselves would be more or less affordable than homes built there if the government regulates that only 10-acre parcels may be developed to protect the views?

    Even if we take your assertions about the comparative values within the cities you mentioned, taking those as proof (or even loose evidence) that the regulation or lack thereof is the driving factor is an ad hoc logical fallacy. If community A has a booming economy and no regulation and community B has a decent economy and lots of regulation, you can not conclude that lower housing prices in community B are because of the regulations… it could be other factors, economic or otherwise, as well.

    I can give you a realistic example by citing a situation one of my employees is currently facing. Our Bozeman office is on the outskirts of downtown. There are older existing homes selling for around $250K in the area. He wants to buy a home near work, but the only alternative to the existing homes are $400K-$500K homes being built on regulated big-parcel land (the developer wanted to put in $180K condos but was rejected). Therefore, he is being forced to buy a place fifteen minutes from work (which means he will need to drive, adding to traffic and burning gas) to stay in his price range of $150-$200K. His situation isnt unique.

  11. ” … where no one wants to live …”, George?

    Obviously that includes YOU.

    At various times for various purposes you have claimed both Oregon and Montana as your “home”. But now as you continue to tell all of us who make our *for-REAL* homes in the West what should or should not happen here it is hard not to notice that all the money you make from your photography sales goes to a Vermont address where you admittedly live and spend your money.

    I have NO idea why people in the West would give a hoot or a holler about your views and opinions unless they have never taken the time to know or research the history of your so-called environmental activism. Perhaps your happening upon the scene started before they were paying attention? I do not know.

    But if anyone puts value to your words, ideas and philosophies now they short themselves if they “buy” without that knowledge me-thinks … since every bit of your past remains imbedded in the marrow of your bones, portrayed by the words you speak.

    I must wonder if they know that as a founder of the notorious organization that became known as EarthFirst! you began your rants and raves in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with publicity stunts and far-reaching so-called “wilderness” proposals advocating from a biocentrism perspective ~ commonly defined as the belief that all forms of life are equally valuable and that humanity is not the center of existence ~ that the human being is no more valuable than cockroaches might be. Some of us believed then, as we believe now, that might not be the case in spite of our love for other creatures here on Planet Earth. But there seems to be no change or mellowing of that opinion being expressed in the words you continue write.

    By 1985 you had progressed to blockades and tree sitting, followed by activities such as a “puke-in” at shopping malls and flag burnings while publishing directions for such practices as tree-spiking and monkey-wrenching which contributed to the injuries of many of those dastardly human animals you sooooooo detest.

    The emblem/symbol showing a monkey wrench and a stone hammer speaks volumes, George. And the illegal, immoral and outrageous behavior of the EarthFirst! organization that YOU founded speaks volumes about YOU.

    So here we are now … in the year 2007 … and you speak from VERMONT to tell all of us who LOVE the West and live in the West just how the cookie should crumble “according to George”???

    Should we just bat our eyes and look away from the facts about YOU?

    Should we follow directions given by a man who profits from the West but fails to plant his roots within it for any longer than it takes to reap that profit?

    For those who choose to heed your words or follow your directions, I mourn.

    They will have failed to “consider the source”.

    … or so it certainly seems to me …