Shelley Wetherell

Douglas County is an amazing place to live, work and play. A lot makes our county stand out — especially the fact that so many of us make our living off the land. This is why the recent ruling by the Land Use Board of Appeals on Douglas County’s decision to open up resource land for housing sets an important precedent for protecting our productive farm, ranch and forestlands.

Oregon’s wholly unique statewide land use system is guided by a set of 19 goals that are applied to all the land in the state, including Douglas County. The goals are designed to be applied equally; no goal takes preference over another. This balance is the foundation that conserves Oregon’s forest and farmlands available for economic and recreational use.

Earlier this year, Douglas County recently adopted a new designation for rural lands in the county called Rural Open Space. This basically would have allowed the county to re-designate over 22,000 acres designated as farm and forest land to non-resource land exempt from protection under the agricultural and forest land use goals. Most importantly, the decision would have opened working agricultural and forest land to residential development. This proposal was appealed to LUBA which remanded it back to the county. The County is now weighing its options on whether or not to redo the proposal to address the issues raised by LUBA.

In its ruling, LUBA reiterated not only that Douglas County must apply the applicable land use goals, but that the county must apply them consistent with state land use laws, statutes, standing case law and the county’s comprehensive plan.

Given the guidelines from LUBA, a revised ROS proposal would not result in a final product that would accomplish anything that cannot already be done under the current system. There is already a procedure in place for landowners to designate their applicable properties to non-resource use and development.

The county has spent countless hours of staff time and precious resources on the ROS fight. Disbursements from the county’s online monthly expenditure reports for March and June of 2019 show that the county has paid $70,592.50 to Schwabe Williamson Wyatt, the law firm representing the county at LUBA — and these are just the legal fees.

How much staff time has been spent on this process that could have been directed elsewhere? It would be irresponsible to spend more county resources and money on the ROS when our budgets are already being squeezed. The resources and money could be better used directly for the public services we all rely upon.

While the ROS proposal was being prepared, Commissioner Tim Freeman appeared on a local radio show talking about the county budget and why the county cannot provide services from property taxes. He explained that a house in the county received $3 per $1000 of assessment in county services on average and paid $1.11 per $1000 in county property taxes for those same services. This ROS plan would have cost the county (and therefore the taxpayers) significantly. Given the uncertainty of the county’s financial situation, the county should not continue to promote rural residential development that requires subsidizing from the county’s dwindling general fund reserves.

Fire risk and the cost associated with it are another reason LUBA’s remanding of the decision to re-designate 20,000 acres is the right one. According to the Oregon Dept. of Forestry, the cost of fighting wildfires has been climbing for decades. One major factor for the increase is expanding development. Traditional wildland fire suppression techniques are compromised when homes are built in wildfire-prone areas, and this drives up the cost of firefighting.

Our productive farm, ranch, and forestlands need to be protected. The USDA 2017 Douglas County Census for Agriculture listed $72.5 million as the market value of products sold. A University of Oregon study states that: “With 19 percent of the total workforce directly employed in forest harvesting and production, it is estimated that another 30 percent owe their jobs to the necessary support services.” Those 22,000 acres in Douglas County need to remain farm, ranch and forestlands that contribute to the county’s economy year after year as they have done for generations.

Douglas County needs to drop any further consideration for the ROS. The issue is not buried yet. Let your county commissioners know that they should focus their energy, money, and attention on taking care of important county matters at hand instead of burdening the county with any new ROS proposal.

Shelley Wetherell is a fourth-generation Douglas County farmer. She and her husband currently raise wine grapes, sheep and timber. She is the current president of Friends of Douglas County, one of the petitioners in the LUBA appeal of the ROS.

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