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.