Kitzhaber opens door to regional land-use planning

Kitzhaber opens door to regional land-use planning
FILE - Gov. John Kitzhaber (AP Photo/Don Ryan, file)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - Gov. John Kitzhaber is loosening the state's grip on land-use planning, opening the door for three southern Oregon counties to eventually allow new development on some farm and forest land.

Kitzhaber quietly signed an executive order May 10 directing the state to work with Douglas, Jackson and Josephine counties on new criteria for designating certain land uses in their region. Environmentalists who have fought such regionalization efforts in the Legislature are cautiously going along with what's being dubbed a pilot project. The process could spark a revision of two of the 19 goals that guide land-use decisions in the state.

Critics of Oregon's state-controlled land-use restrictions have long sought more regional influence. Some southern Oregon landowners complain that farming or forestry could not realistically be profitable on thousands of acres that are restricted to those uses under the state's current rules.

Kitzhaber's executive order is the result of a compromise with House Republicans, who championed legislation this year that would've had a similar result. House Bill 4095 languished in a committee.

"Who knows more about land-use planning than at the local level?" said Republican House Co-Speaker Bruce Hanna of Roseburg. "That's really the idea."

The order directs the Department of Land Conservation and Development to work with the counties on a regionalized approach to defining farm and forest land, and it frees $350,000 for the work.

At least two of the counties will have to agree on any changes, and the Land Conservation and Development Commission also will have to sign off, so there's no guarantee that new rules will ultimately take effect. Still, proponents were optimistic they could make it happen with the help of the money and the governor's mandate for the state to collaborate with the counties.

Oregon's 1973 land-use law created a statewide approach to planning and has been a source of political tension ever since. It's credited with controlling sprawl around cities and conserving farm land, forests, coastal areas and natural resources. But critics say it restricts the rights of property owners.

Farmers and environmental organizations have been skeptical of proposals to reduce the state's role in land-use planning, saying tight controls are needed to ensure smart planning for growth and protect farms.

Jason Miner, director of 1,000 Friends of Oregon, said the organization is now focused on ensuring any changes don't lead to rural sprawl or other adverse effects. The organization was created to defend Oregon's land-use laws.

"The worst result of all would be that this is done poorly, or in a haphazard way," Miner said.

Officials said Douglas, Jackson and Josephine counties were selected for the pilot project because they've expressed the loudest interest in working on the issue.

Their work could be used as a template for other regions to develop their own definitions of farm and forest land, said Richard Whitman, Kitzhaber's natural resources adviser and the former director of the state land-use agency.

"I don't see it as a sea change in the land-use program," Whitman said. "It's a further maturing in the land-use program and making it more responsive to the needs and desires of people in different parts of the state."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.