A complex land use law that allows new dwellings on Oregon forestland may be headed for an overhaul due to complaints it’s being exploited.
Under existing law, a new home can be built in a forest zone as long as the tract is surrounded by a certain number of other dwellings and parcels within a 160-acre “template” surrounding it.
While the statute was intended to allow dwellings on forestland already affected by fragmentation, critics say landowners have abused loopholes to construct more houses than originally intended.
"We're giving people something they have had the right to, by clever manipulation," said Rep. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton, a chief sponsor of the bill.
Specifically, critics claim landowners have adjusted lot lines, revived dormant “zombie” parcels and manipulated the position of the 160-acre “template” to qualify for additional dwellings.
“We’re talking about the best forestlands in the state,” said Meriel Darzen, rural lands attorney for the 1,000 Friends of Oregon conservation group. “It’s not linked to forest use. It’s not linked to any resource use.”
Oregon’s Department of Land Conservation and Development has determined that 5,337 new dwellings have been constructed under the “template” provisions since the statute was enacted in 1993, representing 58 percent of houses built in forest zones.
While the number of “template” dwellings dipped during the housing downturn, use of the statute has since increased, the agency found.
Sid Friedman, a Yamhill County farm operator, said the “reshuffling” of deeds and property lines has subverted the original intent of the “template” statute.
“These aren’t just isolated examples,” he said during a recent legislative hearing. “These examples are way too common.”
House Bill 2225 would close loopholes in the “template” statute and restrict new dwellings in forestlands deemed at high risk for fire, which has concerned some representatives of affected landowners.
The Oregon Small Woodlands Association opposes further restrictions on the already finite number of dwellings that can be built under the “template” statute, said Roger Beyer, the group’s lobbyist.
Landowners have bought properties believing they could construct new dwellings on them but HB 2225 would strip them of that ability without allowing them to claim compensation, Beyer said.
While most forest fires are started by people, most of the damage caused by wildfires occurs in remote areas that don’t have many dwellings, he said.
The recent legislative proposal would likely trigger claims under Measure 49, a ballot initiative passed in 2007 that permits some home development by landowners affected by land use restrictions, said Dave Hunnicutt, president of the Oregon Property Owners Association.
“You’re going to deprive those people of a right they paid for,” Hunnicutt said.
The chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture and Land Use, Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, said he would not support "anything that touches Measure 49" and planned to convene a workgroup on the template law.