Efforts by two Creswell brothers, Norman and Melville McDougal, to develop 500 acres of forest land near Lane Community College have neighbors, environmentalists and others up in arms. With good cause.
The McDougals already have cleared the land, cutting and selling thousands of trees, Register-Guard reporter Saul Hubbard wrote this week.
Now they appear to be preparing to plant houses on this land in unincorporated Lane County; a network of gravel roads already has been built.
This land is zoned impacted forest land, which, according to the county, means it is "primarily resource land to be used for forestry, agriculture and related activities."
Homes can be built on land with this zoning, but only by obtaining a special use permit, which the county says is a much more involved and difficult process than getting building permits for land zoned rural residential. It also would require minimum lot sizes of 80 acres.
The only problem is that the county's zoning rules have holes you can drive a gravel truck through.
In addition to the purchase of 500 acres of forest land, the McDougals also acquired 70 acres of adjoining land, composed of many small, legal lots.
A previous owner of the 500-acre property, the late businessman John Musumeci, bought the land more or less on spec, hoping that Eugene would expand its urban growth boundary there someday, making the land developable.
The McDougals aren't waiting around to see if, or when, that day comes. Instead, they now appear to be using the same tactic they've successfully used elsewhere to develop this large piece of land. This involves using old deeds to get the county to recognize as many parcels as possible as legal lots. The developers can then build on these lots, adjusting lot boundaries to the sizes they want.
In addition to allowing for greater density, this means the developers don't have to seek rezoning of the property to "non-resource" land, which would have seriously increased the requirements for development — including mandating traffic and environmental impact studies. It also would have allowed neighbors to question and comment on the new housing development, including the impact on water and waste disposal capacity (homes in the area rely on septic tanks and wells).
Given that this is not the first time that the McDougals have employed this method locally to develop forest land, the county would appear to be due for a review of some of its zoning laws.
LandWatch Lane County, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting urban sprawl and protecting natural areas, is challenging the McDougals' project based on a 2011 state appellate court ruling.
But, rather than leave it to nonprofit organizations to attempt to make sure that not just the letter, but the spirit, of county land-use rules are followed, it might be time for the county to undertake a review of them with an eye to closing loopholes.
In recent years, there have been numerous challenges to laws protecting rural land in Oregon, at both the state and the local level.
There will undoubtedly be more as Oregon's population increases and the economy continues to improve. Lane County government needs to be prepared.