$550,000 set to reclassify land in Jackson, Josephine, Douglas counties
By MITCH LIES
Tucked in a spending bill that passed in the waning moments of the 2012 Oregon Legislature was a $550,000 appropriation that could change how Oregon defines farm and forest lands in the future.
The funding, to the Department of Land Conservation and Development, is earmarked for a pilot project involving three Southern Oregon counties. The counties, in concert with each other and the state, are directed to redefine farm and forest land, possibly leading to reclassification of thousands of acres.
Jackson, Josephine and Douglas counties are involved in the project. The appropriation includes $350,000 to the counties, and $200,000 to DLCD to administer the funds and assist the counties.
Lawmakers appropriated the money in anticipation that Gov. John Kitzhaber will issue an executive order calling for the project. Kitzhaber is expected to issue the order in the next few days.
The project is significant, said property rights advocate Dave Hunnicutt of Oregonians In Action, because under current definitions, thousands of acres of nonproductive farm and forest land are misclassified and left idle.
"When (the Land Conservation and Development Commission) defined agriculture and forest land in 1974, they adopted a one-size-fits-all definition that didn't take into account the difference in farm and forest practices across the state," Hunnicutt said.
"The definitions were adopted so broadly that there is land zoned for farm or forest that everybody recognizes isn't farm or forest land," Hunnicutt said. "It can't be used for commercial ag or forestry.
"This pilot project gives those three counties the first opportunity to come up with a definition of farm and forest land that better fits their area," he said.
Under Oregon law, counties can petition the state to reclassify land zoned for farming or forestry if a county believes it is misclassified.
Hunnicutt said doing that is time-consuming and expensive, and rarely undertaken.
But using that approach is far better than changing a regional definition of farm and forest land, said Shawn Cleave, a government affairs specialist for the Oregon Farm Bureau, which opposes the project.
"If you have a county interested in helping you convert low-value farmland for other uses, you can do that," Cleave said. "This is not about utilizing low-value farmland in more productive ways. It is about using high-value farmland that is close to urban growth boundaries.
"That doesn't protect agriculture, and it doesn't speak to their argument of providing a better definition of ag land," Cleave said. "All it does is put high-value ag land in jeopardy."
Cleave acknowledges there are instances where conflicting uses warrant reclassification of high-value farmland to other uses more compatible with its surroundings.
But, he said, those situations should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
"From a policy perspective, we don't feel like counties should have separate definitions of farm or forest land," he said.
Ultimately, Hunnicutt believes all counties should have more say in how their lands are zoned.
"We believe very strongly there needs to be a much better balance between the roles of local government and the state in land-use planning," Hunnicutt said.
"The ultimate goal is to prove to the public that counties, working in partnership with LCDC, can make reasonable choices and come up with definitions that are much more suitable to their needs than leaving it entirely in the hands of a seven-member (land conservation and development) commission in Salem," he said.