State supreme court affirms $1.15 million judgment to estate


Capital Press

Changes to Oregon's land-use law have not gotten a county government off the hook for a $1.15 million judgment previously won by a prominent property rights advocate.

The Oregon Supreme Court ruled June 17 that Multnomah County must repay the family of deceased landowner Dorothy English for lost property values caused by land-use zoning, even though the state law related to such compensation has been revised.

The ruling stems from English's claim under Measure 37, a law passed by Oregon voters in 2004 that required governments to compensate landowners for imposing regulations that reduced property value -- or to waive those restrictions.

English, a highly visible proponent of the initiative, had long battled with Multnomah County over regulations that prevented the division of her 20 acres into eight smaller plots.

Shortly after Measure 37 became law, English filed a claim demanding the waiver of about 60 regulations enacted by the county after she'd bought the parcel in the early 1950s.

Multnomah County refused to drop all of the regulations, claiming that some restrictions were exempt from Measure 37 because they related to health and safety.

When English filed a legal complaint seeking compensation in 2006, the county agreed to waive some -- but not all -- of the remaining restrictions.

English argued the county had waited too long to waive the rules, entitling her to $1.15 million in compensation for lost property value. A state judge agreed and granted that judgment in 2007.

Multnomah County initially challenged that decision, but then withdrew its appeal after waiving further regulations on English's property. The county claimed those waivers negated its obligation to pay the judgment.

In 2007, voters passed another ballot initiative, Measure 49, which allowed landowners with valid Measure 37 claims to build a limited number of homes on their property as compensation for diminished value.

Because Measure 49 "extinguished and replaced" the rights afforded by Measure 37, the county claimed the judgment awarded to English was moot.

Multnomah County's arguments were ultimately rejected by a state appellate court in 2009, and the Oregon Supreme Court upheld that ruling on June 17.

The state's highest court ruled that the judgment was final and thus couldn't be affected by the subsequent changes in the country's position or by revisions to state law.

In a statement, Multnomah County said it "acted upon its fiscal duty to citizens and taxpayers" in pursuing the litigation.

English, who died in 2008 at age 95, would probably have been happy with the ruling but exasperated with how long it had taken to obtain, said Donald Joe Willis, an attorney who represented her in the case.

The 20-acre parcel that prompted the litigation remains undeveloped, since the rights afforded by Measure 37 and Measure 49 were eliminated by the $1.15 million judgment, he said.

"Whatever they do on the land, they have to do under what the existing (zoning) rules are," Willis said.

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