North Highway 97

Looking north toward Redmond, this photo shows traffic in the north and southbound lanes on U.S. Highway 97 on the north side of Bend in 2017.

When Bend businessman Tony Aceti purchased a piece of farmland between Bend and Redmond 25 years ago, the area was still a rural patchwork of hay fields and juniper trees.

Today, Aceti’s land straddles Deschutes Junction, a busy intersection along U.S. Highway 97 where drivers speed past on their way to work and truckers race to their next destination. Aceti’s once peaceful location has been bisected by Tumalo Road.

The changes that have occurred on Aceti’s land are indicative of the developments along Highway 97 between Bend and Redmond.

The once-rural communities are booming with new housing developments, big box stores, and light industrial complexes. The road between them is starting to fill in with development.

“When I first moved to Bend the population was 10,000. The changes since then have been dramatic,” said Aceti, who in addition to farming and property development is also a creator of board games.

Aceti has been fighting to change the zoning designation of his property from Exclusive Farm Use to Rural Industrial for nearly two decades, following the recognition that development in the area since it was purchased no longer makes farming possible. Final approval to make the change has not been made by the county, however Aceti believes he is close.

He is not sure what might go there — a veterinary clinic, a tractor dealership, or a light industrial complex could be a good fit, he said. But growing hay is no longer possible given the soil quality and the triangular shape of the plot.

Property zone changes

That Aceti is close to getting his property zone changed raises the question of what other developments might occur along Highway 97. In another 20 years will the lifeline between Bend and Redmond be lined with businesses, warehouses, homes, and other forms of sprawl?

That is unlikely, said Peter Gutowsky, planning manager for Deschutes County Community Development.

“A lot of zoning is Exclusive Farm Use so it limits (most) types of commercial and industrial development. It largely precludes it,” said Gutowsky. “There has always been an expectation that Bend and Redmond would grow together, but truly the zoning that is in place is going to keep it rural.”

Ben Gordon, executive director of Central Oregon LandWatch, a non-profit organization that seeks to protect open space, said his organization is committed to keeping the area out of the hands of developers.

“We advocate for preserving the rural spaces in between for a mix of rural residential and agricultural uses,” said Gordon in an email. “Whereas the cities are vibrant hubs of commerce, the rural lands are kept intact for agriculture and as open space.”

Pockets of development

While it does remain mostly rural, the nine-mile stretch of High Desert between Bend and Redmond is starting to see increased pockets of development.

There is a solar panel project on 73 acres of land four miles south of Redmond. That project was built on land zoned for Exclusive Farm Use.

There is also an RV storage lot, a pet resort, and a handful of other businesses. Gordon said his organization is kept busy reviewing applications for development and has thwarted attempts at added infrastructure, including a road that was planned to parallel Highway 97 between Deschutes Junction and Redmond.

“LandWatch prevailed at the Land Use Board of Appeals since the project would have violated the state transportation planning rule regulations, and the county plans were dropped,” he said.

Closer to Bend, a campground could soon be added to the landscape. The Roadhouse Ranch and Camp, developed by California real estate agent Shawn Kormandy, could be in place a year from now, about a half-mile north of the current Bend urban growth boundary.

The project was discussed Wednesday by the Deschutes County Commission as it moved toward approval. Neighbors living close to the project have already expressed concern that if the project moves ahead it will bring too much noise and evening light to the area.

Deschutes Junction

Then there is Deschutes Junction, where Aceti has his property. An estimated 3,000 to 4,000 people live within two miles of Deschutes Junction, he said, and there are few services for them in the area.

“Deschutes Junction should be master-planned with a boundary around it. This is an area that needs some rural commercial. It needs a store and a gas station,” said Aceti. “It needs a place where this rural population can go so they don’t have to go to town to get a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk.”

Gutowski said the developments that have occurred are rare and there are significant barriers to converting land use permits from farm use to rural industrial.

“I just don’t see those developments as a transformation,” said Gutowski. “In large part it’s piecemeal stuff that is not going to change the character of Highway 97 between our two largest cities.”

County commissioner Phil Chang also remains confident that Oregon’s property laws are well-suited to prevent the sprawl seen in states like California, where city limits often collide with no rural space left as a buffer zone.

“Our state land-use system is set up to contain sprawl and encourage compact development pretty well,” said Chang.

Maintaining aesthetics

What development does ensue, said Gutowski, has rules surrounding it. Large billboards and out-of-place buildings are unlikely to appear.

“We have a landscape management combing zone that deals with aesthetics when you are visible to Highway 97,” said Gutowski. “Any new structures have to be earth-toned, with some screening involved.”

Chang said he hopes to see “large sections” of the highway corridor remain either agricultural or wildland open space including sage steppe and juniper woodlands.

The county can work with existing permit holders to ensure that the development of their land veers toward natural uses, he said.

“If we work strategically to designate some green space corridors along Highway 97, anchored in public land ownerships, then we could preserve some large stretches of the highway as agricultural or wildland open space,” said Chang.

Aceti agrees that development along most of the route is improbable due to a lack of safe access points. The overpass at Deschutes Junction made his area unique in that it overturned a patch of rural ground but in doing so it opened up opportunities for business.

“The overpass created a problem for one use but it created an opportunity for rural commercial or rural industrial use,” said Aceti. “That is my 59 cents.”

Reporter: 541-617-7818,

mkohn@bendbulletin.com

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