An Oregon land use board has reversed a county zoning decision that allowed a 108-acre farm and forest property to be split into smaller parcels.

The property near Crawfordsville, Ore., is mostly located in big game habitat that can’t legally be switched from a “farm forest” zone to a “non-resource” zone that permits 5-acre tracts, according to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals.

Such a change would violate Linn County’s land use plan, which requires farm and forest zoning for big game habitat, and so it’s “prohibited as a matter of law,” the LUBA ruling said.

Last year, the local government determined that rezoning the 108-acre property would not have a “direct impact on fish or wildlife habitat,” since it’d still be protected with county “density standards and clustering requirements” when the smaller parcels were developed.

However, LUBA has ruled these mitigation efforts during the development phase would be “inconsistent” with Linn County’s comprehensive plan, which specifically commands that big game habitat be preserved with Agricultural Resource, Forest Resource and Farm/Forest land use designations.

Ronald Henthorne, who owns the 108 acres and intervened in the case, hasn’t yet decided whether to challenge LUBA’s ruling before the Oregon Court of Appeals, said Wendie Kellington, his attorney.

Henthorne worked as a protection forester with the Oregon Department of Forestry for 27 years but was unable to establish a commercial forestry operation on the property despite his extensive efforts, she said. Farm cultivation of the parcel also wasn’t an option.

“Nothing worked,” Kellington said. “The property is just not suited for that.”

The zone change was meant to provide Henthorne with some economic benefit from the property while retaining its habitat values, she said. The parcels would still have been subject to wildlife considerations and some would likely be larger than the minimum five acres.

“The idea was to create oak savannah on the property, which is habitat that is very rare,” Kellington said.

The 1,000 Friends of Oregon nonprofit, which objected to the zone change, wasn’t convinced these plans would be sufficiently protective, said Andrew Mulkey, attorney for the farmland preservation group.

“I’m dubious you could protect habitat with a subdivision, or that a subdivision would provide oak savannah habitat,” he said.

Even if the initial plan called for lot sizes larger than five acres, that wouldn’t stop future landowners from adopting the minimum parcel size allowed in the zone, Mulkey said. “There’s nothing in the law that would hold a developer to that particular promise.”

Henthorne’s own soil tests and forestry evaluation did not conclusively show that the property wasn’t productive forestland, Mulkey said.

Developing a subdivision outside the urban growth boundary would also require an expensive extension of fire protection and other services into a rural area, he said. “That’s kind of the unseen cost the developers don’t tell you about but it ends up costing everyone else.”

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

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