Bend-area subdivision plan blocked

Deschutes County commissioners deny a zone change

By Elon Glucklich / The Bulletin / @EGlucklich

Published Apr 30, 2014 at 12:01AM

A real estate firm’s vision for a major new neighborhood east of Bend may be dead.

Deschutes County commissioners on Monday denied a proposal by California-based Newland Real Estate Group to change the zoning on 171 acres it owns along Northeast Butler Market Road, between the city limits and Bend Municipal Airport.

Newland wanted to change the property’s zoning from exclusive farm use to a less strict, agricultural zoning, which would have let the developer build homes.

Newland paid more than $7 million to buy the mostly bare land back in 2007. In recent interviews, the company said it planned to build hundreds of homes on the site.

But after several public hearings and months of deliberation, commissioners voted 2-1 Monday to deny the zone change, saying the property has some agricultural value and should be kept open for possible farm use.

Commissioners Tammy Baney and Alan Unger voted against Newland’s proposal; Commissioner Tony DeBone was in favor of it.

The application has been contentious since Newland officials requested the zone change in January 2013, with discussions centering on the property’s quality of soil and Oregon’s efforts to preserve a dwindling supply of farmland across the state.

Attorneys for Newland have argued the soil is too poor to make a profit by using the property as farmland. Rezoning it to build homes would give the company the best chance to make a profit, they argued.

But a Deschutes County hearings officer in October recommended commissioners deny the Newland application, saying the company’s soil tests on the site last summer “failed to demonstrate the property is not ‘agricultural land’ as defined in (Oregon) statute.”

Those tests found about two-thirds of the soil was below the county’s classification of farm-quality land. But the property also has higher-quality soil and could possibly be farmed, according to the hearings officer’s decision.

On Monday, Commissioners Unger and Baney said Newland hasn’t established that a farmer couldn’t make a living there.

“Like most lands in Deschutes County, this is not very fertile soil,” Unger said. “But that’s the nature of farmland in Deschutes County. … As I look at this, it’s farmland.”

The commissioners have voted unanimously on just about every item they’ve discussed over the last six months .

But DeBone broke off from Baney and Unger this time, saying he didn’t see a way for Newland or anyone else to make a profit by farming the land.

“The soil is in a situation where it is not really a profitable setup” for farming, he said. “It just doesn’t have the potential for productivity.”

Unger countered by saying most agricultural land in the county is low-quality, but farmers still make a go of it despite a short growing season and tough soil.

And Baney said irrigation, fertilizer and other techniques could make the Newland site suitable for some kind of agricultural use. The land has been farmed in the past, and the property still has water rights.

Whether crops could be grown there, cattle could be raised there or some other use could be found remains to be seen, Baney said.

“I think this property could be enhanced in a way that could make it profitable and productive,” she said.

The commissioners’ decision is still pending a legal review, but it effectively blocks Newland from moving forward with its subdivision plan.

What Newland might do with the property at this point, or whether it plans to appeal the commissioners’ decision, isn’t known. An attorney representing the company didn’t immediately return a phone call seeking comment Tuesday.

— Reporter: 541-617-7820, eglucklich@bendbulletin.com