Oregon State Capitol

Oregon State Capitol

A controversial proposal to allow more home-building on farmland along Oregon’s border with Idaho has survived a critical deadline, potentially keeping it viable through the end of the legislative session.

Property within the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Region could be rezoned from “exclusive farm use” to residential uses under House Bill 2456, subject to multiple conditions.

On April 9, the House Committee on Agriculture and Land Use referred the bill without recommendation to the House Revenue Committee, where legislation is shielded from normal deadlines for action.

The committee moved the bill 5-1 with the understanding that it’s still undergoing revisions, which chief sponsor Rep. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, characterized as an “uphill battle.”

Under the amendments approved by the committee, rezoning proposals would have to be examined by a review board that would issue an opinion to the county government. Homes would also have to be built on parcels larger than 2 acres and only 200 acres could be rezoned for residential development per county, among other provisions.

Proponents of the bill argue that it’s necessary to stimulate the region’s moribund growth in housing, which is far slower in Eastern Oregon than across the border in Idaho. Critics argue  rezoning will convert farmland while straining county services and water resources.

Rep. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton, said he’d vote the bill out of committee as a “courtesy yes” but believes the area’s economic woes are “multi-faceted.”

“I’m not sure this is a solution to those,” he said.

Rep. Susan McLain, D-Hillsboro, said she voted against the bill because she’s uncomfortable supporting a referral when the proposal remains incomplete.

Apart from moving HB 2456, the committee also approved several proposed changes to Oregon’s land use law for a vote on the House floor.

Under House Bill 2469, forestland owners would be allowed to build second dwellings for family members on their property, similar to provisions that apply to farmland. The new houses would need to be within 200 feet of the existing home, land divisions would be prohibited and only parcels larger than 80 acres would be eligible.

An amendment approved by the committee would also require the landowner’s successors to manage the property as a “working forest under a written forest management plan.”

The committee also unanimously voted in favor of House Bill 2573, which would make it easier to build homes on farmland dedicated to cranberries, which have experienced depressed prices in recent years.

Under the version of HB 2573 headed for a House vote, farm dwellings could be built on cranberry properties earning $40,000 in annual revenues — down from the current $80,000 — as long as a deed restriction prohibits them from being used as rental homes.

Cideries could locate on farmland without having at least 15 acres of surrounding orchards under House Bill 2355, which passed the committee 4-2.

The bill would provide an alternative to the 15-acre orchard requirement for companies making fewer than 100,000 gallons of cider a year that have 1 acre of orchard on a farm tract of at least 20 acres.

Reps. Brian Clem, D-Salem, and Susan McLain both voted against the bill, whose introduction was spurred by a small diverse farm in Coos County that wanted to make cider but couldn’t meet the 15-acre orchard threshold.

“I feel it’s a one-off that still has implications,” said McLain.

In one case, the committee approved a bill 5-1 that would reduce allowable home-building on Oregon forestland.

House Bill 2225 pertains to a “forest template” law that permits dwellings on forestland that already has some residential development in the vicinity.

Critics of the existing statute argued that people were exploiting “loopholes” by altering lot lines and resurrecting dormant parcels to qualify for new dwellings. The Oregon Small Woodlands Association and Oregon Property Owners Association defended the template law, arguing that the number of homes allowed under the statute is already limited.

The amended version of HB 2225 narrows the conditions under which template dwellings can be built by disallowing property line adjustments for that purpose, among other provisions.

I've been working at Capital Press since 2006 and I primarily cover legislative, regulatory and legal issues.

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