Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Crossroads Approaching for Oregon

Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 1983. In my opinion: Crossroads approaching for Oregon. The Oregonian. February 11.

By Andy Kerr

Urban sprawl exists in Portland, Ashland, Eugene, Albany, Newberg, Harrisburg and all the burgs in between.

The valleys of the Rogue, Umpqua and the Willamette rivers are changing. Not so slowly, and just as surely, they are turning into that Oregon anathema: Southern California.

And this is Oregon—land of the bottle deposit, public beaches, bike paths, land use planning and other progressive legislation. The land use planning law, ballyhooed as a great and wonderful thing, has strong public support. Every effort to repeal it has failed.

I am not impressed with Oregon's land use planning laws and the Land Conservation and Development Commission. It is a paper tiger on nearly all procedures and almost no substance—and contradictory besides.

Goals have been established under the law that require preservation of farmland and concurrent industrialization and suburbanization of farmland. Even the name of the agency is contradictory: land conservation and development. It is hard to have an effective law with such built-in ambiguities.

Under the current system, urbanization always is considered to be the highest and best use. All that is necessary is that such use be justified. I will grant that that is a vast improvement. This simply slows but does not prevent the destruction of farms, open space and natural values.

The emphasis on procedure is at the heart of the problem. The effect of the entire process seems to be creation of a series of barriers and delays called due process: hearings, evidence, appeals, public meetings, comprehensive plans, zoning and so on. The process has halted some of the most ill-conceived projects and forced major modifications of others. And it is certain that Oregon is better off with what exists than with no land use laws at all. But the barriers have done little to halt the gradual destruction of the idea that is Oregon.

Those who seek to stop the destruction of Oregon from urbanization and industrialization by simply creating enough procedural hoops for the exploiters to fail to jump through, rather than arguing opening and forcefully that the best public policy requires preservation of farmland and timberland in perpetuity—not just until society requires it for cities—are making a series and, I believe, fatal mistake. Proponents of land use planning leave themselves exposed to the charge from its opponents of delaying decisions for no reason other than delay.

They must not continue to create reasons for delay, but instead should put forth reasons to protect, conserve and defend what makes Oregon so special.

Most developers running through this gauntlet of procedures seem to escape with their plans largely intact. It reminds me of man's efforts to exterminate coyotes. Elaborate traps succeed in getting rid of the less intelligent animals, leaving the more crafty critters free to reproduce more of their kind. With land use planning, Oregon has developed a selection process that is creating a strain of unbeatable developers.

The way things are going, western Oregon is on a direct course to becoming another Los Angeles. Not at the same course or speed, to be sure, for land use planning deflects and slows the process; but the movement is underway just the same. Perhaps the planning process can spare Oregon some of the problems of sprawl. Hopefully, society will learn to assess the costs of development directly on those who benefit, instead of the population as a whole. Perhaps the land use planning process will provide more open space, more mass transit, efficient urban services, and all those things that accrue from planned growth.

But Oregon also will have all those people, their dwellings, their cars, their sewage and their crime—more cities, suburbs and development. What Oregon will not have are farms and ranches, forests and orchards.

What Oregon will have are all those things Oregonians look on with scorn—a kind of Northwest megalopolis. It may be better than Los Angeles, but it will be Los Angeles just the same.

It is time to put some teeth in Oregon's land use laws. It is time to stop growing for the sake of growth—"the philosophy of the cancer cell," as Edward Abbey calls it. There are many people, including respected environmentalists, who will object strongly. "You can't stop growth," they say. "You can only control it." The only answer, the argument goes, is to direct growth. That is not an answer.
To really keep Oregon Oregon, new strategies urgently are needed.

In this Legislature, let not the debate focus on salvaging the procedural monster of the Land Conservation and Development Commission. Instead, let the debate be on how to obtain the best mix of urbanization and other uses with a minimum of delays for those lands that are to be developed. In exchange, developers should be willing to agree to areas clearly and permanently off-limits, not just until the next comprehensive plan, but in perpetuity. Let there be conservation districts and farm districts where urbanization, suburbanization and industrialization are prohibited. Better yet, let development be limited to present urban growth boundaries. Otherwise, our children will be living in Los Angeles.

As a youth in the upper Willamette Valley, I used to float a pastoral Willamette, buck hay and steal a little corn in the summer, listen to the Canada geese on the chilly winter evening and buy fresh fruit just out of town. It still is possible to do those things, but not for long.

Let us decide what kind of state we want. Do we want Oregon, or another California? If it must be the latter, let us choose now. I would rather the end came quickly than watch it all fade away.