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‘Big Look’ comes to Hood River

By JANET COOK

News staff writer

March 17, 2007

Oregon’s land use laws were referred to as a “stick without a carrot” by Wasco County Planning Director Todd Cornett at a Thursday meeting in Hood River.

Cornett was one of many government leaders to tell the Oregon Task Force on Land Use Planning, also known as the “Big Look,” that more local control was needed with development and zoning decisions.

Officials from Hood River, Mosier and The Dalles said properties in Oregon were divided by the centralized land use system into only three categories; forest, farm or urban. However, poor soils and terrain often prohibited agricultural practices on land set aside for resources.

“A local jurisdiction knows the valley and the conditions on the ground. We know when a case doesn’t fit the mold,” said Hood River County Planning Director Mike Benedict.

“If you take away power from some of the (lobby) groups that are controlling our land use system then you are going to turn control back over to the citizens.”

He said the placement of housing within the county was already challenging because residents “don’t like sprawl and they don’t like density.”

Different variations of the same theme were presented by Ron Rivers, county commission chair, Dave Meriwether, county administrator, and Bill Fashing, county economic development coordinator.

They contend that state land use laws have inflated the price of property within — and just outside — the Urban Growth Boundary of cities.

“We’re facing all kinds of issues. We’ve got to find a way to balance the preservation of farm land and the ability to grow an area,” said Fashing. “If we don’t do something to allow some changes then nobody who works here is going to be able to live here.”

He said the county’s economy was reliant upon agriculture and tourism; both of which were seasonal and paid lower wages. He said the county needed the ability to diversify its industrial base, but that would be difficult to accomplish with the current land use rules in place.

Rivers suggested that returning more “creativity and flexibility” to the planning process would help farmers stay in business. For example, he said development rights restored by Measure 37 claims could be transferred from resource lands to more suitable parcels.

“I feel like our land use system is in dire need of a tweaking and you are the advocacy group to get that started,” he said.

Mike Thorne, a Pendleton rancher who chairs the task force, said the same concerns were being expressed across the state. However, he said there were varied opinions about how to fix problems. Some of these differing viewpoints were aired at the March 15 forum.

Jeff Hunter a Realtor and member of the Hood River Valley Residents Committee, a local conservation group, said expanding the UGB was “not a panacea for the disparity of income that continues to grow in this country.”

Hunter said it would be unfair for city residents to absorb the cost for infrastructure improvements on Measure 37 properties that were under development.

However, James Wilcox, a Realtor and member of The Dalles City Council, disagreed with Hunter’s stand.

“I didn’t have to pay for infrastructure improvements when I moved to The Dalles 12 years ago; they were already provided for me. So, maybe it’s my time to pay for the next guy,” he said.

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