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Rural landowners get reprieve from zoning change

It was purely by accident that Joseph Auth and Amanda Spahn discovered last May that their farm outside Cornelius was now inside the urban growth boundary.Photo Credit: COURTESY PHOTO - Joseph Auth and Amanda Spahn, who live in a rural area on the east end of Cornelius and were shocked to find their property had been included into the UGB, are excited to maintain their rural zoning.

They’d emailed the Washington County Department of Land Use & Transportation about a previous issue, and the response mentioned their property had been drawn into the newly-mapped UGB a few months earlier.

“We were shocked,” Auth said.

So were their neighbors after Auth informed them. The UGB expansion includes roughly 40 other farms and rural residences at the east end of Cornelius, north of Highway 8.

“Nobody wants to be included,” said Auth, who has lost sleep over the issue.

They knew their chances of having their property removed from the UGB were slim, but they wanted to at least keep their current rural zoning, which was also being threatened.

At an Aug. 5 meeting of the Washington County Board of Commissioners, about two dozen of Auth’s neighbors showed up to testify against the plan to change their zoning to urban future development.

Urban zoning would prohibit residents from keeping fowl for sale or from running a swine operation. But much to the surprise of Auth and his neighbors, Commission Chairman Andy Duyck proposed the neighborhood keep its current zoning, allowing residents to keep their current lifestyle, at least for now. The properties remain in the UGB.

A vote will be held Aug. 19 to accept a proposed ordinance change with updated maps reflecting the neighborhood’s rural zoning.

“It’s not imminent that area would be replanned, so I saw no reason to change it,” said Duyck. “I saw no reason to restrict what they could do [with their property].”

“We were always hopeful someone would listen to us, but we were slightly surprised,” said Sarah Jackson, who lives on 334th Avenue and testified last Tuesday. “I love it here; I think it’s the perfect place. I don’t want it to change, and I want the freedom to choose what animals we have.”

Richard Howell, another resident of the neighborhood, shared stories from his kids’ experiences raising pigs for the county fair through Future Farmers of America.

“Without the rural zoning, we never would have been able to do that,” said Howell, who also plans to raise chickens. “I’m hoping to retire and live here indefinitely.”

Auth and Spahn were also hoping to expand a geese operation on their property on 334th Avenue, but urban zoning would have likely killed those plans.

“We never thought our land was even being considered” for the UGB, Auth said.

The urban growth boundary designates what parcels of land should be developed and what parcels should be preserved for farming. Normally, UGB decisions are made by Metro, the regional government organization that is in charge of natural areas and land use.

But Metro’s 2010 plan for urban and rural reserves was challenged in court, and when the Oregon Court of Appeals finally tossed out the plan last February, the state Legislature took over, passing a “grand bargain” law that rearranged the UGB through deals and compromises between the various affected parties.

“Normally we have a pretty extensive public outreach process, and notify people if there’s even the potential their land may be affected,” said Tim O’Brien, a planner with Metro.

Metro code stipulates that when a UGB amendment concerns more than 100 acres, they’ll provide notice to “all households located within one mile of the proposed amendment area and to all cities and counties within the district at least 20 days prior to the hearing.”

But when the Legislature passed the bill, “it was out of our hands; it was done above us. It happened over a weekend and we were all pretty surprised,” O’Brien said.

In addition, Washington County staff usually post UGB-related agendas in newspapers and notify Community Planning Organizations and welcome comments and requests, said Stephen Roberts, the county’s Department of Land Use & Transportation communications coordinator.

But because the UGB decision was made on the state level, neither Metro nor the county could notify the affected property owners.

Holding zone

It’s typically difficult to have a rural zone in an urban area, Roberts said. And a property’s zoning changes to urban when it becomes part of the UGB, which puts it in an uncertain “holding zone,” Roberts said, with the land poised for future development even though it may take years.

The city of Cornelius will need to undergo extensive planning and to annex the property before development can occur, for example. And owners are not required to develop, he said.

Duyck said he didn’t think the challenges of having a rural zone in the UGB were insurmountable.

“There’s a big difference between bare land in the UGB and neighborhoods,” he added.

Auth and Spahn and many of their neighbors are still nervous about the future, but keeping their rural zoning has bought them some time living the way they’d like.

“We are very thankful and appreciative of the Washington County Board of Commissioners and planning staff for recognizing the existing farm and rural uses in our neighborhood,” Auth said. “Keeping our existing zoning mitigates some of the impacts of House Bill 4078 on our neighborhood.

“Elected representatives are finally hearing our story, an opportunity we were not given during the House Bill 4078 negotiations. We move forward working with the city of Cornelius to ensure our neighborhood does not become annexed into the city and remains in unincorporated Washington County.”

“What we have out here is something really rare,” Howell added. “It’s a tightly knit rural community.”