'Big Look' panel should be revived

Oregon's land-use planning system is broken — not because it's too strict or too lenient, but because it's too complicated. And now Oregonians may lose an opportunity to fix it because of partisan politics and bureaucratic infighting.

The state's current land-use laws germinated in 1973 with the passage of Senate Bill 100, which established statewide goals and guidelines and a new state agency, the Department of Land Conservation and Development. It was a model program both envied for its efforts to keep Oregon livable and despised for its broad-brush restrictions on property use.

Since its inception, however, the laudable goals of the program have slowly but surely been buried beneath piles of bureaucratic regulations — by one count there are now 1,200 pages of administrative rules. No single planner, let alone a property owner, can possibly know all the rules. So the system operates with lawyers, land-use consultants, multiple layers of local government committees and officials and an endless series of appeals and court cases.

The symptoms of that complexity are evident in the numerous efforts to overturn or modify the state law, recently with Measures 7 and 37 and, currently, with Measure 49.

To its credit, the 2005 Legislature agreed to consider change by creating the Big Look task force, which, as its name implies, was asked to review the land-use system as a whole and return with recommendations. To its discredit, the 2007 Legislature pulled the rug out from under that effort through funding cuts and meddling from the left, the right and the state agency whose practices were being reviewed.

While virtually everyone agrees that the land-use planning system needs a major overhaul, too many players would like to micromanage the outcome. Conservatives were unhappy that the task force had a Portland flavor in its makeup and feared it wouldn't go far enough in undoing the current rules. Liberals worried the effort would undermine protections for farm and forest lands. DLCD officials didn't want outside consultants running the show and wanted to keep control of the reins. The governor's office was concerned the Big Look conversation would complicate the vote on Measure 49.

In short, politics and infighting won out in the 2007 session. But there's an opportunity to put this back on the tracks in the 2008 short session of the Legislature.

Adequately funding the program involves relatively small amounts — hundreds of thousands of dollars, practically pocket change for the state. But money is the least of the hurdles. The biggest to overcome will be the partisan forces and the entrenched bureaucrats, all of whom are determined to protect their turf.

If the extremes are allowed to win out and to permanently derail this effort, we, they and the entire state will all be losers. Conservatives who dislike the current system will have given up the opportunity to amend it. Land-use planning supporters will be faced with the prospect of fighting off incendiary ballot measures at every turn. And the state will be left with an ineffective system that loses popular support with every new layer of administrative rule.

The Legislature must reinvigorate the task force and support its mission. Oregonians deserve a workable system that protects livability and is fair and understandable. That's not what we have now.

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