By Bill Carmichael
Guest Columnist 

Stop the hand-wringing and make change


Last updated 2/21/2023 at 2:54pm

It seems that we are chasing our tails in this ongoing concern about Sisters growth with endless meetings and letters to the editor that accomplish nothing. On one hand, we have a City Council and Planning Commission who are making the attempt to abide by the state land use laws, while on the other hand we have a majority of citizens who feel something is desperately wrong in how we are going about keeping Sisters the special place that all of us feel it is.

The City Council and its Planning Commission legitimately say their hands are tied to do anything about the state laws enforced by LCDC (Land Conservation and Development Commission), so our only option is to continue to stuff what’s left of the available land with more dense housing so we can fill up every square inch and then apply to the state to expand our UGB. While on the other hand, most citizens realize by just following this path, we end up ruining the ambiance of Sisters and its natural beauty and resources.

A few weeks ago, I applied for a vacancy on Sisters Planning Commission. During the interview I asked several questions about why there was this “rush” to approve all of these development projects, which is probably a major reason I was not considered for the job and which was probably a good decision on the interviewers’ part as I would have, no doubt, been a thorn in their side. The chairman of the Commission said, “Our hands are tied. We cannot stop any development that meets the code, even if we personally disagree with a proposed development…. We can only point out where it does not meet code, but in the end we must approve all applications that meet the code.” He did not address the code “exceptions” that were granted to some of the recent approved developments or how that can be done. The Sisters mayor then spoke up and said, “The only way to change this is to change the code,” but did not offer anything the City Council is currently doing to change the code or, further, push back on the state land-use board on their “one size fits all” mandates.

I am not trying to throw our well-meaning City Council members under the bus or denigrate the Sisters Planning Commission. These are good, well-intentioned, unpaid volunteers who are caught between the laws of LCDC and current city codes versus the citizens who see something is terribly wrong with how we are proceeding to develop Sisters. Many of our city leaders agree with the citizens on this but discover, once elected or appointed, that their hands are tied. And we tend to hire outside city planners and managers, who are trained in the ways of LCDC with the goal to defend and embrace every idea that comes out of Salem, stick around for a couple of years, and then take a higher-paying job somewhere else.

All this without much consideration of the fact that much of the 50-year-old land-use law conflicts with itself. It does not take a genius to see in reading the 14 statewide land-use planning goals: Goals 2-8 directly conflict and collide with goals 9-13, especially in a place like Sisters that is surrounded by national forests on one side and exclusive farm-use land on the other.

And what is the point of filling up all our city land with high-rise apartments and tiny lots in order to apply to LCDC to expand our UGB? Under the current process the plan would then be to fill all that new land with the same type of development, lining the pockets of the developers, until we pack that out and do it once again — maybe for years to come, finally reaching the outskirts of Bend city limits?

That is why I agree with the group that is proposing a moratorium on all new construction in Sisters. This I think is a very good idea and one that will give everyone who has a stake in the outcome to take a breath and reconsider how to go about finding good answers. I know the city just did a whole new planning thing, but it was under the banner of the current LCDC laws. If we are to see real change, I see several major questions that need to be answered.

Can the City Council, by law, declare a moratorium on new building projects and if so, what process is needed to do so.

Can Sisters apply to LCDC to be an exception, like what was done for the Oregon Coast and the Willamette River Greenway in the original land-use laws?

Will the state consider opening a revision of the 50-year-old land-use-law mandates to reconsider that the a “one size fits all” concept may be out of date?

Do we have elected state representatives that will go to bat on our behalf to see the state reconsider changes to the land-use laws?

Can the City Council (or is the City Council willing) to rescind or adopt new local codes that reflect citizen concerns for slow growth, preserve more trees, add substantial fees to developers (like a $1,000 fee for every tree cut down and a steeper fee for sewage, water, road, and school impacts), and do other things that will provide a slower, more planned development of Sisters that protects what we all love about living here?

Can we agree to put on hold all talk and initiatives about expanding the Sisters UGB until we have changes on the part of the State Legislature in revising their land-use laws?

I think it’s time to stop the hand-wringing and sense of being victims and slaves of LCDC and the developers who are using the current codes to pocket profits. As citizens and city leaders it’s time to stop the bantering back and forth about this in useless hearings and go to work together to push back and get the needed changes accomplished. And if our elected officials are unwilling to initiate this task, then as citizens let’s elect officials at all levels who are committed to change.


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