Most land in Deschutes County is designated for farming or forestry — but those hundreds of thousands of acres include farmland with soil unfit for growing crops and so-called forests bare of trees.

After more than a decade of working in vain to change how Oregon regulates farm and forestland, Deschutes County is finding its own path toward re-evaluating some of that land. Deschutes County Planning Manager Peter Gutowsky shared policies for rezoning some of that land with the county’s planning commission Tuesday night.

“This is a legacy issue,” Gutowsky said. “It’s almost the third rail of land use planning in Deschutes County: what constitutes agricultural land?”

There are about 1.9 million acres of land in Deschutes County, excluding roads, lakes and rivers. About 700,000 of those acres are designated for agricultural use and more than 1 million are forestland. The four incorporated cities — Bend, Redmond, Sisters and La Pine — encompass a combined 33,298 acres.

About 80 percent of the total land in the county is owned by federal, state or local governments. It leaves about 224,000 acres of privately owned land designated for farming and 78,000 acres of privately owned land marked as forestland.

Oregon’s statewide land use planning program, adopted in the 1970s, is intended to minimize urban sprawl and protect forest, farm and rangeland. In the late ’70s, Deschutes County ended up designating most undeveloped, nonforested rural land as farmland.

“There’s a reason why these lands 30-plus years ago were designated for farm or forest,” Gutowsky said. “They were undeveloped, and they looked at the time like they could be used for farm or forest. I think we can all reasonably recognize through a substantial burden of proof that these are not farmlands, these are not forestlands.”

Since then, it’s become clear that some of that land has never been used for farming, lacks irrigation rights or has poor soil quality, Gutowsky said. Since 2008, the county’s participated unsuccessfully in state legislative attempts to update agricultural and forestlands.

The policies Gutowsky shared Tuesday night would create two new zones: one with a 20-acre minimum parcel size that landowners could apply for and one with a 10-acre minimum parcel size that would apply only to six areas of the county.

Deschutes County’s Community Development Department identified six areas that had been partially planned before the county designated farmland in the ’70s. The Skyline subdivision and its first addition are near Bend, Haner Park, Section 36 and the Meadow Crest Acres subdivision are in the south county and the Squaw Creek Canyon Recreational Estates is near Sisters.

On pieces of farm or forestland outside of those six areas, owners who want to rezone their land to allow for future development would have to apply for rezoning through a quasi-judicial process that includes opportunities for public input. Landowners would be responsible for proving their land isn’t suitable for farming or forestry.

Gutowsky said he and Deschutes County Community Development Director Nick Lelack met with the Central Oregon Builders Association, the Central Oregon Association of Realtors, the state Department of Land Conservation and Development and conservation advocacy groups 1000 Friends of Oregon and Central Oregon LandWatch while developing the county’s proposed policies.

“We’re all hopeful that what has been introduced thus far will satisfy the advocacy organizations, but we should be prepared for opposition,” Gutowsky said.

The Deschutes County Commission will discuss the proposed policies during a joint meeting with the planning commission Feb. 28, then the county plans to host open houses in La Pine, Sisters and Bend in April and a public hearing in May.

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