Oregon's Greatest Gift Is Land Use Planning

Oregon is Oregon because of land use policy. But what makes our land use policy so special?

Dear Friends,

This past year, as you worked to protect all that you hold dear from the effects of COVID, wildfires, and more, I hope you’ve occasionally taken comfort in knowing that Oregon’s land use planning system has been working right alongside you, a silent and steady partner to every Oregonian. It can be hard to see right now, clouded as things are by the pandemic, but Oregon is faring better than nearly every other state in the nation, and we will emerge stronger, too, due in no small part to the resiliency afforded us by our land use system.

Indeed, the purpose of Senate Bill 100, written into the bill itself nearly 50 years ago, is quite simply “to assure the highest possible level of livability in Oregon.”

Along with the 19 land use planning goals that followed, SB 100 created an unparalleled legacy for all of us, one that deeply and comprehensively interrelates social, economic, and environmental outcomes that together constitute the quality of our daily lives. In these last days and hours of 2020, then, let us set aside some time to reflect with gratitude on the true scale of that vision and all that it has provided both to us as Oregonians, and to the natural splendor of our state, even—and perhaps especially—in this most difficult of years.

As you read this, I recommend keeping a list of the 19 goals handy, both as a key, and as a reminder of their incredible scope and power.

First and foremost, let’s take a moment to consider Goal 1, which calls for the people of Oregon to have a voice in their land use planning system. Here is one area where COVID has actually made things better. This year, with in-person meetings impossible, Oregon’s state, county, and municipal governments created or expanded opportunities for safe remote access. Born of necessity, this change also has the effect of creating greater equity. More people have access to government processes, including the land use planning system. You can now view, listen to, and give testimony at public hearings on land use issues from home. Even our legislature is embracing this, and is in fact preparing for its first-ever remote legislative session in 2021. Moreover, a bill is being drafted for consideration this session that, if passed, will make remote access a permanent option.

One of the land use goals that has seen the most need for public participation over the last few years is Goal 10, “to provide for the housing needs of the state.” Oregon is experiencing a housing crisis, and is in need of more than 155,000 homes to make up the difference. Land use planning is fixing this problem. In 2020, landmark housing legislation HB 2001 & 2003 passed into law in Oregon, and now, Oregon’s 55 largest town and cities are working to adopt a model code that re-legalizes compact and affordable “missing middle” housing options for the first time in decades. Additionally, millions of dollars in bond measures have passed and special allocations were made as part of targeted efforts to house those in immediate need, not just in terms of correcting Oregon’s longstanding housing shortage, but to provide shelter to those experiencing houselessness, to protect countless more Oregonians from eviction during the pandemic, and to meet the needs of over 4000 Oregonians who lost their homes in September’s fires.

In helping to solve the housing equation, Goal 10 also helps to prevent sprawl, with a significant assist from Goal 14, urbanization. Goal 14 is possibly the most iconic piece of the overall land use system. That’s the goal that requires Oregon’s 241 towns and cities to have carefully-managed Urban Growth Boundaries. Along with Goal 11, which aims to keep public facilities and services tied to existing communities rather than being used to justify sprawl, and Goal 13, which seeks to conserve energy, these goals are together building strong communities while protecting farms and forests and conserving natural areas. It is a fundamental premise of the land use system that these are two sides of the same coin; we cannot effectively steward the 61.3 million acres of Oregon outside our UGBs without also fully caring for the 800,000 acres inside those UGBs.

This balancing act, as it turns out, has another crucial effect: it mitigates climate change.

In fact, Governor Brown’s March 2020 Executive Order on Climate pivots off of these and other aspects of land use planning, with a special focus a resource that crisscrosses our UGBs and is central to life on all sides: our transportation systems. Transportation—the subject of Goal 12—is the #1 source of greenhouse gas emissions in Oregon, with most of that coming from all the cars and light trucks we Oregonians drive every day. This Executive Order takes a multi-disciplinary approach by directing the departments of Land Conservation and Development (DLCD; the state agency tasked with implementing the land use program) and Transportation (ODOT) to adopt rules integrating land use and transportation planning, as well as making investments to reduce our need to drive as far or as often.

How is this accomplished? Through local land use planning: increasing the amount, variety, and affordability of housing in mixed-use, compact, walkable areas, with all neighborhoods served by safe, connected walking and bicycling pathways and public transit where possible. Moreover, the state’s Climate Friendly & Equitable Communities advisory committee will be recommending, by the end of 2021, a set of rules that will pave the way for the state’s 8 major urban areas to engage in equitable climate planning. Additionally, the Oregon Global Warming Commission is leading research in cross-agency solutions to empower those who work the land as full partners in adapting climate-friendly tools to sequester carbon and conserve energy.

Among other things, this highlights the importance of Goals 3 and 4—which aim to protect agricultural and forest lands, respectively—not only to produce food, fiber, timber, and more, but also to make significant contributions to carbon sequestration and climate stability. Many farmers, foresters, and ranchers are already working on this. This year, for instance, more than 250 farm businesses signed on to the Oregon Climate and Agriculture Network’s letter in support of climate change legislation.

We also know that farmers, foresters, and ranchers are some of Oregon’s greatest conservation partners.

This was evidenced earlier this year by the historic memorandum of understanding between environmental groups and the timber industry, and by the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board’s extensive grants program, which includes hundreds of conservation and restoration projects initiated and led by working lands professionals.

Just as there has been an encouraging emphasis on providing farmers, foresters, and ranchers with financial support for conservation activities, there must also be funding to help them meet their transition needs as more than 75% of their land changes hands in the next generation, and there must additionally be support for meeting their transition needs as a carbon-neutral economy emerges.

Here in Oregon, many of these issues converged heavily this year around the wildfire, and here, too, land use planning offers solutions. While there is no one “wildfire goal” within the system, the goals above, as well as Goal 7, for “areas subject to natural disasters and hazards,” pretty much have it covered. As with climate change, wildfire is a large enough concern for Oregon that the governor convened an advisory council, whose recommendations are expected to receive consideration in the upcoming legislative session. Keep an eye out for a bill creating much-needed statewide wildfire risk mapping.

Almost as dear to the hearts and minds of Oregonians as our forests and farmlands are our parks and natural areas, and with COVID, these places have become even more precious. Fortunately, that, too, is part of the land use planning program. Goal 5 addresses the protection “natural areas, scenic and historic areas, and natural resources,” including wetlands and wildlife habitat, and Goal 8 requires local governments “to plan for the recreation needs of their residents and visitors.” 2020 has seen extensive investments in parks and open spaces, particularly in the Portland region, which means that many Oregonians won’t have to leave their UGB to find fresh air and connect with nature. Commitments across the state to local trails and safe routes to school also made major advancements this year.

While Oregon’s land use planning program does not apply directly to the many millions of acres of federal and tribal lands in Oregon, all of Oregon benefits. After all, air, water, and wildlife cross those borders freely, and a significant number of Oregon’s 19 land use planning goals relate to those things. Air, water, and land resource quality are all addressed in Goal 6, which was designed to correspond to the federal Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. Goals 15 though 19 speak to many of Oregon’s specific water and water-adjacent resources, from the Willamette Greenway to the Oregon Coast, all of which are receiving enormous investments from federal, local, state, and private funds, and from partnerships spanning agencies, foundations, businesses, and nonprofits too numerous to account for here.

Whether directly tied to the land use planning system or not, in the end, it’s all connected.

If the purpose of Senate Bill 100 is to “assure the highest possible level of livability in Oregon,” and the mission of 1000 Friends is to “work with Oregonians to enhance our quality of life” through the land use system, it is perhaps worth recalling the words of Governor Tom McCall, who co-founded both the land use system and 1000 Friends. In his address to the 1973 State Legislature—the one that would go on to pass SB 100—he remarked:

"Quality of life is the sum total of the fairness of our tax structure; the caliber of our homes; the cleanliness of our air and water; and the provision of affirmative assistance to those who cannot assist themselves. True quality is absent if we allow social suffering to abide in an otherwise pristine environment."

Of course, the inverse is also true. True quality would also be absent if we sought social satisfaction at the expense of the environment, and Governor McCall recognized, this, too, in that same speech:

"The interests of Oregon for today and in the future must be protected from the grasping wastrels of the land. We must respect another truism—that unlimited and unregulated growth, leads inexorably to a lowered quality of life."

When fully realized—when the purpose of Senate Bill 100 is honored, and when the 19 land use planning goals are being met—Oregon’s singular land use planning program speaks to all of these things. It offers extraordinary outcomes, the sum total of which have yet to be seen, but whose potential would be hard to overstate. Land use policy isn’t just land use policy. As we said in our 2020 Annual Report, land use policy is also climate policy. Land use policy is environmental policy. It is conservation policy. And it is social justice policy. What other toolkit exists that has the power to be all of these things, and that has in fact been so for the last 50 years? None. What other state has such a toolkit? None. Only the land use planning system has this strength. And only Oregon has this system.

Oregon is Oregon because of land use planning, and that means Oregon is Oregon because of you.

In these, my final words to you in 2020, let me simply say thank you. We are so very lucky to be in Oregon. Our work would not be possible without your generosity and commitment. If you've already given your last gift for the year, thank you. If not, I hope you will consider making a special donation to help us ring in this new year of possibility.

Today's gift is tomorrow's Oregon

Wishing you the very best in 2021 and always,

Russ Hoeflich

Executive Director