Saxton addresses Oregon’s land-use problems

Article by Ron Saxton as featured in Oregonians In Action Education Center’s Looking Forward Magazine.

As a native Oregonian, I have witnessed the decades long battle over Oregon’s unique land use planning system. Land use in Oregon is an issue that pits farmer against farmer, neighbor against neighbor, Eastern Oregonian against Portlander, and far too often, friend against friend.

This needs to stop, and from my conversations with Oregonians across the state, most people want the fighting to stop.

There are many ways to make this happen. First and foremost, we should not ignore the lessons that other states are teaching us. The desire for sensible and fair land use planning is important to Americans in every state, not just Oregonians.

But the rancor, hard feelings, and impact that planning has caused in Oregon far exceeds that of the other states, who seem to have been able to find a “happy medium” that we cannot. Why is that?

One reason may be because planning in most states is a function of local governments. That is nothing new. In fact, as judges, historians, the media and politicians have noted on many occasions, planning and zoning in the United States is a primary function of cities and counties, not the state or federal governments.

This makes sense, because land use planning directly affects real property, which varies widely from city to city, county to county, and region to region. Local government officials are best capable of responding to local concerns based on an understanding of the land in their area.

In Oregon, however, state government plays the predominant role in land use planning. Not only is this unique to the United States, it is not what the legislature intended when it crafted Senate Bill 100, the 1973 law that created our system. In fact, Senate Bill 100 was touted by the legislature as a law that created a partnership between state and local governments.

But the promised partnership never took hold, as a result of over-aggressive administrative rules and goals of the Land Conservation and Development Commission which prevent local governments from making local decisions in the best interests of the local community.

Having talked with local officials across the state, I can tell you that most do not feel that they are “partners” with LCDC.

I do not believe that a governor has the capacity to be the land use planner for every city and county in Oregon. Nor do I believe that the seven citizens selected by the governor to sit on the Land Conservation and Development Commission have that ability.

Which is why we must put more trust in our locally elected officials to plan for their own communities.

Ted Kulongoski recently indicated that Oregon’s land use system has become characterized by “one size fits all” state rules. This is one area where we agree. The way to solve that problem is to have faith in our local leaders, like they do in 49 other states.

In his book Capitalism and Freedom, Nobel prize winning economist Milton Friedman wrote, “If government is to exercise power, better in the county than in the state, better in the state than in Washington. If I do not like what my local community does, be it in sewage disposal, zoning, or schools, I can move to another local community, and though few may take this step, the mere possibility acts as a check. If I do not like what Washington imposes, I have few alternatives in this world of jealous nations.” These are wise words that we all should follow.