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Citizens must have the right to challenge land use decisions

Bill is misguided that would allow county to circumvent citizens rights


On a recent blustery, snowy day, I’d like to recount for you why I chose to come back home and live in Oregon.

While I grew up on a farm outside Lebanon, my wife Cherry and I spent the early years of our marriage living, working and studying in a number of cities in California’s Silicon Valley and Tempe, Ariz.

Back in those days, Silicon Valley still resembled a valley. But during our time there, we saw the paving over of iconic orchards and farmland, and watched commutes grow to two hours as affordable housing was pushed hours away from jobs.

The story down in Arizona’s “Valley of the Sun” was much the same. We saw agriculture and sensitive desert habitats destroyed with unchecked development. As the valley was slowly but steadily paved over, we decided we were ready to move back to a place where the word “valley” still meant something.

So we packed our bags and headed back to Oregon. We chose Oregon in no small part because of the visionary land use laws that protect our natural areas here.

We intentionally bought property in Washington County, but outside the urban growth boundary, knowing Oregon’s land use laws would protect the farmland, forests and natural resources from the rampant sprawl we saw in California and Arizona.

However, soon after we moved in, an adjoining neighbor applied to Washington County to subdivide his property that was zoned “exclusive farm use” and was well outside the urban growth boundary. His application was based in part on the claim that the steep slopes were not suitable for farming, so he may as well “grow” houses. To our surprise, the county approved his request.

With another neighbor, we appealed the ruling to the Land Use Board of Appeals. In preparing for the hearings, I spent days driving to farms around western Oregon, our two young daughters in tow, to measure the slopes of the fields. I was able to demonstrate that certain crops, such as grapes, could be successfully grown on slopes similar to our neighbor’s.

Long story short, Washington County’s approval of the subdivision was struck down, and the effort resulted in new case law that requires hearings officers and county staff to make an independent analysis of the facts surrounding the application before allowing exceptions to farmland protections.

To be successful in protecting Oregon’s farmland and forestland, we need both foresighted land use laws and the right to challenge land use decisions. That is why I submitted testimony recently against House Bill 4078, a misguided proposal that would allow Washington County to circumvent the citizens’ rights to challenge land use decisions.

Let me be clear: I am not a hardliner. I understand we have a growing population, and I appreciate the need to establish measured and logical plans for future growth through a collaborative and inclusive planning process. But the Oregon story is one of protecting our natural resources for current and future generations to enjoy, and to make a living from. After all, agriculture is Washington County’s second largest industry.

As Washington County chairman, I will be vigilant in protecting Oregon’s land use laws as well as every citizen’s right to challenge those who seek to circumvent the laws.

John Henderson and James Scott are executive director of the Oregon Public Health Association and president of the National Physicians Alliance, respectively



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