The Oregon Supreme Court has ruled that dwellings on farmland can only be replaced if they were subject to property taxes within the past five years.
The ruling reverses the current interpretation of Oregon’s replacement dwelling statute, which doesn’t impose such a limit on demolished homes.
While the decision is a victory for Landwatch Lane County, a farmland conservation group, the ruling’s legal effect may be overridden by a bill that’s being considered by Oregon lawmakers.
At the root of the controversy is a confusing provision of land use law that was inconsistently interpreted by legal authorities, ultimately landing before the state Supreme Court.
A landowner wanted to replace three dwellings demolished two decades earlier on 100 acres zoned for “exclusive farm use” near Florence, Ore.
Lane County’s government approved the request, which was overturned by Oregon’s Land Use Board of Appeals because the homes hadn’t been assessed for property taxes within five years.
The Oregon Court of Appeals took a different view of the statutory language and ruled that the five-year property tax requirement didn’t apply to dwellings that had been demolished or destroyed.
The state’s highest court has now struck down that opinion and restored LUBA’s understanding of the law, finding that the five-year “look-back” provision applied to demolished homes as well as those that were merely dilapidated.
Before the state Supreme Court had reached that decision, however, House Bill 3024 sought to dispel the uncertainty by allowing replacement dwellings regardless of when property taxes were last assessed.
That legislation was approved by the House 52-6 last month and is scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources on May 9.
Landwatch Lane County is troubled by the bill’s attempt to “punch holes in the law” to benefit a single landowner while allowing properties statewide to be fragmented and overdeveloped, said Lauri Segel-Vaccher, the group’s legal analyst.
“They were trying to intercept the high court,” she said.
The bill didn’t encounter opposition while being reviewed by the House Committee on Agriculture and Land Use, but Landwatch Lane County now plans to fight the proposal in the Senate.
“Landwatch had no idea this bill was being pushed through,” Segel-Vaccher said, noting that the organization doesn’t have a lobbyist. “Regular people don’t know this stuff is happening.”
The Oregon Property Owners Association, which supports HB 3024, believes the Oregon Supreme Court correctly interpreted the land use law, which is “precisely why we need this bill,” said Dave Hunnicutt, the group’s executive director.
A revision of the replacement dwelling statute in 2013 wasn’t fair to the landowner at the center of the legal case and should have permitted replacement homes in such circumstances, he said.
“That was the intent, we just didn’t write it very well,” Hunnicutt said.
Even if HB 3024 passes, landowners hoping to rebuild will still have to demonstrate a demolished house had plumbing, heating, electricity and other attributes of an inhabitable dwelling, he said.
“We’re not adding a single new dwelling under this bill,” he said.