Hundreds of thousands of acres in Deschutes County are set aside for farming and forests — but those acres include so-called farmland where crops can’t grow, and forestland populated by houses.

County commissioners this week discussed moving forward with changes to land use policies that protect land zoned for farming, forestry and other resources. The changes could create an easier path for development in some rural areas, but commissioners stressed that development wasn’t the goal of re-evaluating zoning.

“We already have housing out in the rural areas,” Commissioner Phil Henderson said. “What we’re trying to do is get lands that clearly aren’t farmland or forests, but we’re not saying there’s going to be housing there tomorrow.”

Deschutes County’s discussions come as several other southern and eastern Oregon counties work toward developing their own programs to differentiate fertile farmland from other rural land that may be zoned for farming but isn’t suitable for it. But Douglas County, which began work in January to allow home plots on some 35,000 acres of rural land, decided to stop pursuing changes last week, said Peter Gutowsky, Deschutes County’s planning manager.

The Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development also hasn’t chosen to do any rule­making on rural lands this year, he said. That leaves counties with uncertainty about what they can change while still following state land use laws.

“Without rulemaking, without Douglas County, I believe Deschutes County is very much going alone as you contemplate this program,” Gutowsky told commissioners.

The county board is considering whether to focus changes on some noncontroversial areas first, before adopting a larger program to redesignate farmland or forestland. For instance, there are existing residential subdivisions on some farmland and forestland.

“That vacant lot next to the three houses, someone’s probably not going to start farming that or growing trees,” Henderson said.

Another early target for the county’s plan could be some land near Bend. A lot of land east of the city is zoned exclusively for farm use, and county efforts to re-evaluate the land’s suitability for farming could run simultaneously to city efforts to establish an urban reserve and plan for future growth.

“There’s a dual goal or maybe several complementary goals to manage this land in such a way that it can be effectively urbanized,” Gutowsky said.

Starting with those less controversial pieces of land means the county would have a legal policy and framework in place before moving forward with more controversial discussions in the rest of the county, Gutowsky said.

“We could table that discussion and establish these legal frameworks in a way that gives us certainty to go forward,” he said.

Even starting small, the county could still end up defending its plan at the Land Use Board of Appeals, said Dave Doyle, county legal counsel. Central Oregon LandWatch, an environmental watchdog group that frequently appeals county land use decisions, already called on supporters to speak against the county development department’s work plan because it listed re-evaluating farmland as a priority.

“It’s a yeoman effort to try to take this on,” Doyle said. “It’s a high probability that you’ll end up in the Deschutes County wing at LUBA before this is all said and done.”

Moving forward allows the county to proactively manage land policy instead of making decisions based on developer applications for projects like ski lakes and campgrounds, Commissioner Tammy Baney said.

“If we don’t start to plan, we will be applicant-driven on land use,” she said. “Land use policy should be planned and provide clarity on what should be allowed.”

County commissioners and the county planning commission will continue to discuss changes to rural land designations this fall, and the planning commission is expected to hold a public hearing no sooner than November.

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