Oregon has what is generally considered one of the toughest, and yet most progressive, land-use planning systems in the United States.
One reason for this is Oregon has been reasonably successful in in curbing the kind of urban sprawl that has eaten up millions of acres of farm land in other states.
Indeed, protecting the fertile farmland in the Willamette Valley was one of the main goals of the architects of the Oregon system. That is why they established an "Exclusive Farm Use" zone with a statewide minimum lot size of 80 acres.
That made sense in 1977 when land use planning was adopted in Oregon. The Willamette Valley, which contains some of the richest and most productive farmland on earth, was under intense pressure from developers who wanted to create shopping malls and subdivisions up and down the I-5 corridor.
Of course even the best system is not perfect, including land use planning in Oregon. One major flaw was painting all of the state's agricultural lands with the same broad brush.
Farm lands in eastern Oregon are not nearly as productive as those in the Willamette Valley. With a few exceptions, notably around Milton-Freewater and Ontario, farm land on the east side of the state is generally limited to the production of hay, grain, potatoes and livestock whereas farm land on the west side produces literally hundreds of varieties of fruits, nuts, berries, flowers, and row crops. Yet Oregon's land use planning system treats these two vastly different classes of property as one and the same.
That is not to say that farm land in eastern Oregon does not deserve strong protection. Certainly it should be protected to the extent that it represents the custom, culture and economy of the area. At the same time our land use laws need to recognize that for the purposes of agricultural production farm land in eastern Oregon is not all that valuable. It is "marginal" at best.
The Wallowa County land use plan exacerbates this flaw in state land use laws by imposing a 160-acre minimum lot size in the Exclusive Farm Use zone. In layman's terms that means you need at least 160 acres in that zone in order to build a house upon that land without jumping through a lot of hoops. This standard was developed by people who decided that because of the poor quality of the soil in this part of the country that anything less than 160 acres was not a viable farm. Unfortunately that is a backward kind of reasoning that as a practical matter places even even greater restrictions on farm land here than agriculturally productive counties on the west side of the state where an 80-acre minimum lot size is the standard.
If a 160-acre minimum in Wallowa County does not make sense - and we maintain that it makes no sense at all - yet another tier of restrictions against so called "trophy homes" in the farm zone makes even less sense.
Farming, for better or worse, simply does not play as much of a role in the custom, culture or economy of Wallowa County as it did 25 years ago when land use laws were written. The new custom, culture and economy is based more on retirees moving to Wallowa County and buying or building an expensive home than on farming. If anything, land use laws should be rolled back to reflect this reality. Adopting an 80-acre minimum lot size in the Exclusive Farm Use zone would be a good start.
If we the people of Wallowa County want to keep newcomers from building fancy homes on the ridge tops let's at least be intellectually honest enough to do it in the name of something besides agriculture. Agriculture does not need or warrant this level of protection. R.S.