News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Land-use laws manage growth

Sisters is currently experiencing unprecedented growth. That growth is to be managed under a system of land-use laws.

The state of Oregon is unique for any number of reasons and since the 1970s, the state has been particularly unique when it comes to managing land use and development. Land-use planning in Oregon consists of a system of laws and government collaboration that is rare in the United States. Voters approved the framework for the system in 1973. The system now preserves vast areas of land for farm and forest production, protects habitat, conserves natural resources, and protects air and water, all while continuing to allow development of land for homes and businesses.

Oregonians take great pride in all the scenic diversity found throughout the state from the coastline where the beaches belong to the people, to the volcanic spine of the Cascade Mountains dividing western from eastern Oregon, from the geologic wonder of the Columbia River Gorge to the stark beauty of southeastern Oregon.

Former Governor Tom McCall was the one to issue the clarion call to the people of Oregon to protect the land in his famous 1973 speech to the state legislature castigating “sagebrush subdivisions, coastal condomania, and the ravenous rampages of suburbia.”

His call came on the heels of concerns about rapid population growth threatening the state’s two major industries, farming and timber harvesting. In the 1960s and early ’70s, the creation of Exclusive Farm Use (EFU) zones to protect agricultural lands, and the Beach Bill affirming the public’s right to Oregon’s dry-sand beaches, protected segments of Oregon land.

In the spring of 1973, SB 100 created the Land Conservation and Development Commission (LCDC) and the Department of Land Conservation and Development (DLCD). In 1974, LCDC adopted the first 14 statewide planning goals which are still used today to govern the development of local comprehensive land-use plans.

Currently here in Sisters, a Comprehensive Plan update is underway, using those 14 goals as a ruler against which to measure the local land-use plan for Sisters. Goal 1 calls for public involvement in the Comprehensive Plan process and currently two advisory committees are filling that role.

The Stakeholders Advisory Committee is made up of public partners of the City — the Sisters School District, Sisters-Camp Sherman Rural Fire District, Deschutes County, among others. The Citizens Advisory Committee is made up of a variety of citizens providing input on updates to the Comprehensive Plan.

Goals 3 and 4 provide land-use protections for farms and forests. Deschutes County has been debating a proposal to rezone rural areas in the county, removing land protections for farm and forest use on lands not currently being used for such purposes and permitting the development of rural housing developments. That proposal could have set a precedent to allow for future development of Central Oregon’s farm and forest land outside of urban growth boundaries (UGBs). Last month, the Deschutes County Commission withdrew the proposal.

The Comprehensive Plan update is coming at a critical juncture for Sisters. Citizens are invited and encouraged to make their voices heard as to what they want and don’t want to see happen in the way of land use and development over the next 20 years. Meetings of the advisory committees, Planning Commission, and City Council are still being held via Zoom and the public is invited to join in. Thoughts can also be submitted in writing prior to the meetings. There will also be a second public survey available online in the next month or two.

Technical studies have been done to help inform changes to the Comprehensive Plan. A Housing Needs Analysis (HNA) and Economic Opportunities Analysis (EOA), in the context of the City’s Urban Growth Boundary, provides a high-level look at whether these analyses indicate that the City currently has enough land within its UGB to meet 20-year needs.

The City is not currently undertaking a UGB expansion with the Comp Plan Update, but may elect to do so after the plan is adopted, in a subsequent public process.

Each city in Oregon is required to establish a UGB. The purpose of UGBs in Oregon is to protect the state’s farmland and forests from the pressure of urbanization and sprawl and to promote more compact, efficient development within urban areas. A UGB designates where a city expects to grow over the next 20 years, and cities are not allowed to extend urban services such as water or sewer lines outside the UGB. Sisters city limits and its UGB are currently the same. Several times in the past, citizens have voted to annex land into the city, another way to expand buildable land.

There are requirements that must be met before a UGB expansion is possible. Efficiency measures for the use of land within the current UGB must be considered. Such measures can include increasing the permitted density on existing residential land, financial incentives for higher-density housing, authorization of housing types not previously allowed by the plan or regulations, and reduction of minimum lot sizes for single-family detached housing in all zones.

As shown in the 2021 Sisters Housing Needs Analysis, the City of Sisters is forecast to grow from a 2020 population of 3,270 to 5,399 by the year 2041, a growth of 2,130 residents. To accommodate this growth the City needs to add a total of 1,100 new housing units by 2041, which would represent a 65 percent increase in the current estimated supply. This figure includes both owned and rented housing units of all types, assumes a market vacancy rate of 5 percent, and accounts for continued development of vacation homes in the area.


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