By Jared Black

Do you have a point you’d like to make or an issue you feel strongly about? Submit a letter to the editor or a guest column.

If you are a regular reader of The Bulletin’s letters, guest opinions and articles, you have noticed that many of them offer lifestyle advice and self-help tips aimed at making us, in the writer’s view, better citizens. Often an impending crisis, such as global warming, CO2 emissions, river health, traffic congestion or a housing crisis, is invoked to help motivate us to act.

Here are a few specific cases: a river activist wanted to improve the Deschutes River thermal quality by curtailing our Bridge Creek domestic water supply. He was so adamant about this that he went to court twice over it; he lost both times. Another writer believes alfalfa irrigation uses too much river water and wants it limited.

An environmental group, irritated that most of us still drive cars, asked the city council to enforce a fossil fuel emission reduction policy. The council acknowledged the issue, but left it as a voluntary effort. Also, a proposal for increasing bike ridership entailed establishing bike thoroughfares throughout the city. Although bicycle usage has been a Bend pet project for years, it remains a negligible mode of transportation.

A group concerned with housing costs offered options for improving affordability. These include denser housing, reduced system development charges, easing height restrictions and subsidized transportation in dense housing zones. Some affordability options are already being instituted. Granny flats are allowed; infill and small lot housing is being built, and large apartment buildings are being added. These options may improve affordability, but the associated crowding will likely induce livability stresses.

Several factors contribute to the lack of affordable housing. One is population growth. In 2000, the Bend population was just over 52,000 within the 32.2 square mile urban growth boundary. By 2016, the population was over 91,000 within the same boundary. The increased demand and land scarcity drove housing prices higher. Although Bend recently expanded the urban growth boundary by 3.6 square miles (costing Bend taxpayers about $3,000 per acre), it’s too small to have much effect on housing affordability.

The state’s land use rules increase housing costs. The Land Conservation and Development Commission was established in the early 1970s and identified three land use sectors: urban, forests and farms. Designating all Oregon lands with just three categories ignored rural areas that were neither forest nor farm. The LCDC rules make it very difficult to reclassify the land, even if, for example, a farm is no longer economically viable; these rules are a product of an earlier era and are long past their sell-by-date.

LCDC’s main impact, over time, has been to increase housing costs by limiting urban growth boundary expansions. It is sad that land use rules have placed home ownership beyond the reach of many families.

Change is needed, but how can it be achieved? One approach is to return planning control to local jurisdictions. Then-Gov. John Kitzhaber did this in 2012 with an executive order that allowed three Southern Oregon counties to reform their land use designations.

If LCDC rules were relaxed, local farmers might consider relinquishing their irrigation water rights in return for an option to rent, lease, sell or develop their property for light industrial, commercial or residential purposes. Less irrigation would improve river flow rates.

Increasing the land available for residential development would tend to lower home prices. Bend workers that live in outlying areas because of housing costs, could move closer and reduce their travel times. Shorter commutes mean reduced emissions. Adding competitively priced industrial space could draw high value and high wage manufacturing businesses, enabling more workers to buy homes.

If the single-issue activists could see beyond their narrow interests, they would recognize that much of what they wish for could be achieved by working together to reform the 45-year-old land use policies. They could start by supporting a thoughtful, innovative and reform-minded candidate for governor in the upcoming 2018 election. The present governor does not meet these criteria.

— Jared Black lives in Bend.

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