Ore. capitol dome

The Oregon State Capitol. A bill before the Legislature would ease restrictions on the construction of "granny flats" on rural homesteads.

Despite assurances the bill won’t affect “exclusive farm use” zones, a proposal to allow more dwellings in “rural residential” areas has perturbed farmland conservationists.

County governments could permit the construction of “accessory dwelling units,” commonly known as “granny flats,” under Senate Bill 88, but only in rural residential zones if certain conditions are met.

Some counties may decide against allowing such dwellings for a variety of reasons while others will see them as a good fit to help alleviate housing shortages, said Mike Eliason, interim executive director of the Association of Oregon Counties.

“We don’t obviously think this solves the housing crisis all by itself but certainly in many counties, it’s an additional option,” Eliason said during recent legislative hearing.

The bill includes several “sideboards” that would restrict ADUs in rural residential areas to 900 square feet in size and that they be no farther than 100 feet from existing homes on parcels of at least two acres.

The dwellings also wouldn’t be allowed in groundwater critical areas and would have to comply with state forestry rules in areas considered at moderate or high risk of fire, among other provisions.

Younger people with children often can’t build homes close to their elderly parents in rural Oregon, leaving such areas with an aging population, said Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario.

While the 1,000 Friends of Oregon farmland preservation group hasn’t yet taken a position on the bill, the organization is worried about conflicts with agriculture due to the proximity of rural residential areas to farmland.

“Many of these are in the midst of the farming and ranching areas, and so we hear from the farmers and ranchers we work with that they are very concerned about more non-farm-related use out in farmland,” said Mary Kyle McCurdy, the group’s deputy director.

Oregon has at least 730,000 acres in rural residential zones, which is comparable to the 800,000 acres within urban growth boundaries, she said.

Rural residential zones typically allow a single-family dwelling on lots from 2.5 acres to 10 acres in size, said Rob Hallyburton, rural policy analyst for the Department of Land Conservation and Development.

Counties vary widely in how much land they have zoned for rural residential use, ranging from 2,200 acres in Malheur County to 65,000 acres in Lane County, he said.

Critics of SB 88 raised the possibility of increased traffic in farm zones, the decline of small-plot agriculture in rural residential zones and increased wildfire risks.

Peter Kenagy, a Benton County farmer, said he’s concerned about the implications that additional dwellings may have for “spray exclusion zones” under pesticide regulations.

“The sideboards need to be really tight,” he said.

Provisions in the bill allowing ADUs to be used for vacation rentals “will definitely change the character of the area,” said Aileen Kaye, a resident of Turner, Ore.

“This is outside the urban growth boundary, and that’s what’s bothering me,” Kaye said, adding that the bill represents a “big foot in the door” by creating a precedent for development outside cities.

“I know there were statements made today, ‘Oh, we’re not talking about EFU,’” she said. “We will be. It’s just urban creep.”

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

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