The Deschutes County Planning Commission said Thursday the board of commissioners should create a new zone to reclassify farmland that isn’t suitable for farming, but believe more needs to be done to refine how that zone is defined.

In a 4-3 vote, planning commissioners recommended the creation of a new zone for what the county refers to as “nonprime resource lands” — areas that are zoned for forestry or farming, but are already developed with housing and not used for agriculture.

The new zone would ultimately make it easier for landowners in these situations to build homes, but would require more local criteria to qualify than what is required by the state. Local provisions include rules that would require the land does not contain designated wildlife habitat and that it be in a fire-protection district or can be annexed into one.

In general, the planning commission is supportive of the concept. On Tuesday, it voted to recommend approving the rezoning of six specific subdivisions — which are zoned like farm land but largely already developed with houses — under similar conditions.

But in their effort to recommend a broader policy for any future rezoning effort, planning commissioners on Thursday decided more time was needed to analyze the process that defines this type of land.

“If it takes us longer to get it right, trust me another generation will thank us,” planning commissioner Hugh Palcic said.

This is largely in response to concerns with the concept the commission has received over the past few months.

Environmental groups, including Central Oregon LandWatch and 1000 Friends of Oregon, as well as a handful of residents, have objected to the policy change. Opponents argue the policy conflicts with state land use law, and the decision will likely be challenged in court.

“There is a concern that essentially, Deschutes County is promoting a spot zoning opportunity for residents to utilize. We can debate whether that’s true or not,” said Peter Gutowsky, planning manager for the county. “All we’re doing is saying that in Deschutes County, if you want to redesignate farm land, this is the criteria.”

Deschutes County has long discussed how to develop programs to differentiate fertile farmland from other rural land that may be zoned for farming but isn’t suitable for it. Little guidance has come from the state on how to define these lands.

Other criteria that could be considered includes creating a provision that would only allow rezoning these kinds of lands if they are near an existing urban growth boundary to limit scattered development.

The public process on what uses would be allowed in the new zone also needs to be discussed.

If the Board of Commissioners indicate it would like to move forward with the policy concept, the planning commission will discuss the topic again next month.

— Reporter: 541-633-2160, bvisser@bendbulletin.com

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