Change is coming to land-use laws

In the 1960s and early 70s, a television news reader and later governor promoted his vision for Oregon: a system of land control requiring rural landowners to restrict their activities to traditional pastoral uses. The urban citizens bought into the vision and agreed to form the Department of Land Conservation and Development for overseeing and controlling land use throughout the state. This central planning policy has turned out to be a blunder of epic proportions for rural communities. A recent publication by the Economic Research Service of the U.S .Department of Agriculture explains.

There are 18 Oregon counties east of the Cascade Range. The USDA reports that in 1950, at least 20 percent of the personal income in 15 of the 18 eastern counties was derived from agriculture. Deschutes, Union and Klamath counties had timber-based economies. By 2000, the USDA found only four counties, Sherman, Wheeler, Morrow and Harney, with agricultural based economies. The steep decline in the economic vitality of agriculture in Eastern Oregon shows that the land control experiment is a failure. But not just an economic failure, there are unintended social consequences as well.

The decadal census data for 1980 through 2010 shows a pattern of population dispersal. Over those 30 years, Oregon's total population increased by 45 percent, but in the Eastern Oregon counties, it grew by just 16 percent (Deschutes and Klamath excluded). Concurrently, the population in those counties aged 65 years and older grew by 75 percent. In spite of the central planning edict mandating agricultural lands remain so, it is apparent that those remaining inhabitants are less inclined, likely because of age, to do the demanding labor farming requires. Where are the young Eastern Oregon farmers? Many have left the field — literally.

This demographic change is confirmed by data on a New York Times website listing decadal trends in government payments to the states and counties. It shows that Social Security and Medicare payments to Eastern Oregon counties nearly doubled between 1970 and 2010 and now total government payments represent nearly 30 percent of the counties' personal income. This is a further indication of the disruption the central planning scheme has caused.

If you are a typical Oregon resident, regardless of your political leanings, you must wonder why our legislature has for so long continued this economically and socially damaging policy, even after its negative effects became apparent. And why is it that the general population of this state elects representatives whose ideology compels them to continue discriminating against a small segment of the state's citizenry?

Of course, there is a constituency for these stifling land-use rules. It includes the 50 DLCD employees (average annual compensation $110,000) that maintain the restrictions on rural citizens. Each county and city retains a well-compensated planning staff, often performing similar restrictive functions. From 2006 through 2010, the 1000 Friends of Oregon spent nearly $6 million opposing any relaxation of the land-use rules. But out of this 40-year effort to inhibit the natural tendency of a free people to improve their station in life, there comes this ray of hope.

In the 2012 legislative session the house passed a bill authorizing Jackson, Josephine and Douglas counties to form an intergovernmental unit to review and revise the forest and farm zoning designations in those counties. The bill did not become law because the Senate chose not to consider it, but in May the governor instituted the program by executive order. It may take several years, but a journey has begun; a journey to lift the heavy hand of government from the shoulders of Oregon's rural citizens thereby reinstating their liberty and their legitimate property rights.

Why does liberty matter? Oregon's DLCD issues edicts designating a property's "highest and best use". Satisfying this edict requires human capital — labor. But does meeting a central planner's assumed highest and best use make effective use of labor? In some cases it doesn't.

This writer is a former Applegate farm boy whose first farm job was to ride a hay rake pulled behind my father's old Allis Chalmers tractor. I would press one pedal to hold the rake tines on the ground and then press the trip pedal to dump the gathered hay into windrows. But I sensed a different path and left farming. The path, which included developing some technical skills, led from farming to estimating the financial risks associated with major projects. Liberty enabled me to set my own path. Rural landowners deserve the same liberty.

Jared Black lives in Bend.

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