Deschutes County commissioners tabled an attempt to rezone farm- and forestland for residential use after a state Land Use Board of Appeals decision in Douglas County threw some specifics of the proposal into question.

Deschutes County staff members for the past year have been working to define a zone and create criteria for land that is zoned for farm and forestry but has little capacity to grow anything.

The idea has been lauded as a saving grace for property owners who want to build homes on land that they argue can’t be farmed, and lampooned by environmentalists and land watch advocates as a way to systematically degrade Oregon’s agricultural land.

But this month, a Land Use Board of Appeals ruling in Douglas County created precedent that makes it harder to redesignate these lands.

Douglas County is reconsidering a proposal to rezone 22,500 acres of forest- and farmland, which the board of appeals said did not go far enough to assess wildfire risk or address possible wastewater issues. Douglas County did not do enough to coordinate with other cities to see what kind of pressure additional housing would add to roads, sewers and other infrastructure.

So last week, in an unusual move, the Deschutes County planning department asked the commission to consider whether its proposal was worth pursuing.

“We are rarely in this position where we are wanting to get in front of the board on a significant policy issue,” county Planning Manager Peter Gutowsky said.

Because of fears that the Deschutes County proposal could not survive an appeal based on the Douglas County case, commissioners begrudgingly tabled the program this week and decided to ask the Department of Land Conservation and Development to make statewide rules for them.

“I don’t think we can go forward without some partners on the state level,” Commission Chair Phil Henderson said.

But Deschutes County’s decision to table the rezoning plan unearthed resentment commissioners said they have toward state agencies they feel are out of touch with the realities of rural living.

“I’m so tired that three people on the board from Portland are running this state,” Commissioner Patti Adair said, referring to the Land Conservation and Development Commission.

Commissioner Tony DeBone said the state is only focusing on increasing density in urban areas, which he feels is just one slice of Oregon’s housing shortage.

Henderson added he felt the statewide rule-making doesn’t make room for people who don’t want to live in dense cities, and that rural areas need more flexibility to expand.

“At the end of the day, (the Land Use Board of Appeals) was looking forward to putting a hard hammer down,” Henderson said. “It was almost like a system built to lose.”

The commission hopes to bring up concerns at the Land Conservation and Development Commission’s meeting in September, and apply for a grant to hire a consultant to help the county find ways to make the new zone comply with planning standards.

“There seems to be no one on a state level that cares about this stuff,” Henderson said.

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

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