Nearly 40 years later, farmer's land-use vision is still alive -- and still fiercely debated

By MITCH LIES

Capital Press

CORVALLIS, Ore. -- In the late 1960s, with the population rapidly expanding in Western Oregon, dairyman Hector Macpherson concluded it was only a matter of time before his Willamette Valley farm was swallowed by development.

That realization was the genesis of Oregon's land-use laws.

Macpherson, who in 1967 was on the Linn County Planning Commission, brought his concerns to state officials.

Six years later, Macpherson, who was by then a state senator, with the help of Gov. Tom McCall, wrote what became one of the most significant laws in Oregon history.

Senate Bill 100, which lawmakers adopted in 1973, put in place a land-use system that today, depending on who you ask, is either heralded or derided.

Macpherson, now 91, said he knew all along it would be a tremendously controversial bill. But, he said, only a strong land-use law could protect farms from urban sprawl.

To generate support, Macpherson packed the bill with benefits for farmers.

"I always knew it was going to be controversial," he said. "I pulled all the advantages I could into it."

Senate Bill 100 and its companion bill, Senate Bill 101, included the first right-to-farm law in Oregon, tax breaks for farms in exclusive farm use zones and a promise that the state would compensate landowners for lost value caused by a land-use restriction.

Section 24 of SB100 instructed a committee to "make recommendations to the Legislative Assembly on the implementation of a program for compensation ... for the value of any loss of use of such lands resulting directly from the imposition of any zoning...."

The benefits appeased rural lawmakers, and the bill sailed through both chambers 58-30 -- a nearly 2-to-1 margin.

Bill Moshofsky, 86, vice president of government affairs for the property rights group Oregonians In Action, was a timber lobbyist in 1973. The timber industry opposed the bill, he said, but that opposition was muffled in part because of the compensation promised land owners and because the rules enacting SB100 had yet to be written.

Dave Hunnicutt, president of Oregonians In Action, said concern among property rights advocates didn't escalate until the state started implementing the law.

"When the goals were first adopted (in 1975) and the rubber started to meet the road, that is when people started to object," he said.

"Even then," he said, "(objections) weren't as strenuous as they were in the early 1990s.

"You could still go out and partition the back 40, and create two or three lots with home sites. That didn't change until the early '90s when (House Bill) 3661 created the 80-acre minimum parcel size and when the $80,000 rule was adopted."

The $80,000 rule requires landowners in exclusive farm use zones to generate at least $80,000 in annual farm income before they can build a house on their land.

Hunnicutt believes those rules, coupled with the fact lawmakers failed to compensate landowners for losses in property value, led to the success of first Measure 7 in 2000, and subsequently Measure 37 in 2004.

The measures, which drew overwhelming support from Oregon voters, eased land-use restrictions. Measure 7 was thrown out by the courts on a technical issue. Measure 37 was subsequently scaled back by Measure 49, which today is part of Oregon land-use law.

Under Measure 49, eligible property owners can be compensated for the loss of property value caused by a land-use regulation. The measure also allows governments to waive a regulation -- an option cash-strapped governments have almost exclusively chosen.

Measure 49 limits a property owner's development options on farm or forest land to a maximum of three houses.

Moshofsky and Hunnicutt believe plenty more needs to be done to provide Oregon property owners with what Moshofsky calls basic civil rights.

"We've come a long ways," Hunnicutt said. "But we still need to get the state to adopt new definitions of agricultural land and forest land, and recognize that you can't just go out and call everything that's empty in Oregon, that's undeveloped, farm or forest land.

"They call this a planning system, but in rural Oregon, it's not planning at all. It's regulating, but it's not planning," he said.

Eric Stachon, communications director for the land-use planning advocacy group 1000 Friends of Oregon, said he believes the state needs to scale back exceptions that have peppered farm zones in recent years.

Today, golf courses, model aircraft facilities and living-history museums are among about 50 exceptions allowed in farm zones.

"We would like to see that whittled away," he said. "It's a death by a thousand cuts scenario."

Macpherson, who today lives in an assisted-care facility in Corvallis, is thankful SB100 still is in play.

"I'm delighted that it has lasted. I thought it would be voted out, but I recognized when developing it that it had to be within the bounds of what people would accept," he said.

"I think it is terribly important to keep farmland available for people who are going to be here from here on out," he said. "And I think Oregon has done a better job than other states to preserve farmland."

Macpherson still owns the farm his father started working in the early 1900s. A nephew works it today, growing grass seed, wheat and rotation crops on acreage the dairy once occupied.

"The remarkable thing is our land-use laws didn't come from a liberal group or a conservationist organization," Macpherson said. "It came from Oregon farmers."

Staff writer Mitch Lies is based in Salem. E-mail: mlies@capitalpress.com.

    

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