Editorial: Land-law carve-outs violate fairness

Published Mar 8, 2013 at 04:00AM

Oregon lawmakers decided a few years ago to exempt the Metolius River basin from Oregon land use rules that would have allowed development of a couple of destination resorts in the area. It was a first, but, sadly, the idea of the Legislature carving out individual exemptions to land use laws has apparently has caught on.

Thus the 2011 Legislature created new rules allowing the Silvies Valley Ranch, located between Burns and John Day, to put up nearly 600 cabins, build a golf course and add other amenities to what is a working cattle ranch.

This year’s proposed carve-out is for the Big Muddy Ranch in Wasco and Jefferson counties. The ranch, now known as the Washington Family Ranch and owned by the Young Life Christian organization, is the former home of followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Young Life hopes to get permission to add some 1,500 beds in three campsites on the property but cannot do so without an exception to current Oregon land use law.

Whether or not you agree with any or all of the changes, they all do one thing. They take decision-making away from county government and plant it firmly in Salem. For the Jefferson County Commission, it’s the second time in less than five years that’s happened.

At the same time, they tell the people of Oregon that when an individual or group has enough clout, the state’s land-use law need not apply. In the first two instances, they’ve been able to persuade a majority of lawmakers and a governor of the validity of their concerns. It remains to be seen what will happen with Young Life’s request, currently before the Legislature as HB 3098.

The problem, as we see it, is this: While changes like each of these may well be good, special intervention is needed because state law treats Eastern Oregon sagebrush county in the same way it treats productive Willamette Valley farmland. The same problem lies with rules requiring infill in a region that draws people in part because of its endless supply of elbow room. Again, much of the land supplying that room is too high or too dry or both for much anything but housing.

Oregonians have a well-developed sense of fairness, and it seems to us that carve-outs violate that. If the law should allow greater freedom to grant exceptions to current restrictions, then rewrite the law. Otherwise, treat our county governments and the people they represent with respect. Apply the law equally to all, and end the practice of carving out exceptions for those with enough power to catch your attention.