News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

State planning goals guide local decisions

Concerns around “growth and development” in Sisters are at a fever pitch. But before diving in to discussions around this hot topic, it is necessary to gain a clear understanding of Oregon’s land-use laws which guide decisions made by the local Community Development Department staff, the Planning Commission, and Sisters City Council.

Why were the land-use laws created, how do they work, and, after 50 years, do they need some revision to better meet today’s circumstances?

Oregon’s land-use laws, legislated in 1973, are based on a set of 19 statewide goals, which were adopted as administrative rules and are the basis for comprehensive plans adopted by Oregon cities, counties, and special districts.

Sisters, with input from the citizens, recently updated its comprehensive plan, a process that is necessary on a regular basis due to changing conditions. That update must be “acknowledged” by the Land Conservation and Development Commission (LCDC) as being consistent with the statewide planning goals.

Local comprehensive plans are not limited only to goal compliance. Local plans can address a variety of other land- use issues that are not the subject of state goals. Once acknowledged by the LCDC, the local comprehensive plan becomes the controlling document for land use in the area covered by that plan. There are city zoning and land-division ordinances needed to put the plan into effect. They comprise the City Development Code.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Oregon’s citizens were concerned that rapid population growth and development might negatively impact the environment, natural resources, and the livability of communities.

At that time, agriculture and timber were two of the largest industries. There was concern that increased development would convert farm and forest lands, presenting a threat to the state’s economy. Unfettered, sprawling development also threatened to increase the cost of public services for more roads, sewers, and police and fire. Today those same issues are grounded in concerns of livability and sustainability.

Governor Tom McCall led the charge in urging the Oregon Legislature to enact a statewide land-use planning program to protect Oregon’s threatened agricultural and forest industries. McCall was adamant about Oregon’s rivers, streams, forests, and farms as irreplaceable biological resources.

“We’re talking about more than preserving the beauty of Oregon. … We’re talking about the economy and the environment. We’re talking about balance. In short, we’re talking about people and the land,” the governor said.

The legislature passed SB 100, establishing a statewide land-use system based on the concept that urban uses and development belong inside cities and towns, while rural lands should be preserved for farms, forests, and open space.

Residents across the state had input in establishing the 19 state and regional planning goals. Four goals apply only to the coast, and one applies to the Willamette River Greenway. The goals encourage broad public participation in land-use decisions, protection of wildlife habitat and agricultural land, and conservation of forest land, among others.

Thus began the establishment of the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB), which would surround each city and town to foster growth inside the cities, creating cohesive communities while preventing development sprawl from overrunning the surrounding landscapes. Sisters’ UGB is currently the same as the city limits. Many municipalities have a UGB that lies outside the city limits.

Before the UGB can expand to allow for more development, the City must prove it has employed “efficiency measures” to make use of all developable land within the UGB. Those measures include things like increased density created by reducing required lot sizes or increasing building heights. In a larger community those measures may not impact the overall character of a town.

In a small rural community like Sisters, those types of measures can have a big impact on the overall appearance and character of the town. After 50 years of the Oregon land-use rules, is it time for the legislature to take a look at how well those rules are serving the needs of all Oregon communities? Should there be different land-use laws for urban and rural areas? In a town like Sisters, the efficiency measures may work against the goals for air, water, and land resources quality, for recreational needs, or for natural resources, scenic and historic areas, and open spaces.

The citizens of Sisters are beating the drums of resistance to irreparable changes to their community (see story page 3). Their frustrations are often aimed at local City officials and developers — who are required to abide by state land-use laws. It is legislators who hold the key to changes in the state land-use laws. Perhaps other regions in the state might qualify for goals that address their specific circumstances, like those for the Willamette River Greenway and the Oregon Coast.

Talk with your legislators

On Tuesday, February 21,

6-7:15 p.m., there is a free online opportunity to speak with two local state legislators about housing, water, and wildlife habitat in Civic Conversations for a Sustainable Future: An Oregon Legislative Event. Rep. Emerson Levy (District 53) and Rep. Jason Knopf (District 54) will be available to talk about these issues and answer questions. Registration is available on Eventbrite or through the Central Oregon Landwatch website. Upon registration, a link to the presentation will be sent. Questions may be submitted beforehand.


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