It will take farmland out of production and allow houses to be located in an area prone to severe drought and wildfire risk.
On August 6th, Governor Brown signed Senate Bill 16, a bill that 1000 Friends and many other organizations strongly opposed and requested that the Governor veto.
SB 16 waives Oregon’s land use laws to allow up to 100 houses — not related to farming — to be built on up to 200 acres of exclusive farm use (EFU) land, scattered across the 55,000 acres of the “eastern Oregon border region” around the cities of Ontario, Vale, and Nyssa, the areas of Willow Creek and Brogan, and the farm and ranch lands in between.
The bill allows EFU land to be rezoned in the hopes, as stated by the proponents, of attracting higher-income residents to the region. Malheur County does have a housing need, a need for housing affordable to current residents and workers, in the communities where they already live and work. One-third of Malheur county renters are severely rent-burdened, paying more than 50% of their income in rent.
SB 16 states the houses will not be allowed on high-value farm lands or farm lands with Class 1, 2, or 3 soils. The restriction is without much meaning in this area, where most farm soils are actually class 4 and above – the very soils that are great for raising Oregon’s #1 agricultural product: cattle. Agriculture is the economic engine of the southeast region. Malheur County is always in the top five of the state’s 36 counties in agricultural production, producing over $350 million annually in agricultural products, and is Malheur County’s largest jobs provider.
The public, via the state, has invested in a major rail re-load shipping facility in Nyssa, which will significantly increase the transportation options available for Malheur County’s ranchers and farmers to get their products to market quickly. Now is not a time to be taking local farmland out of production.
Allowing housing across this landscape is also contrary to sensible wildfire and water policies. Oregon wildfire maps show areas of "very high" and "high" risk wildfire risk outside Ontario and Vale, in areas zoned as EFU. Increasing housing in the wrong area for people who are not engaged in ranching and farming will increase the risk and cost of wildfires. This is also a region of diminishing water resources and increasing drought and wildfire risk. Currently, Malheur County is in a declared state of drought emergency. Attempting to attract high-end home development to this area is going in the opposite direction of sound policies on water, climate, and wildfire that the state is pursuing.
1000 Friends thanks all of those who voiced opposition to their legislators and the Governor, and we are deeply disappointed it is now law. We also thank the legislators that voted no on SB 16. You can find the House votes here, and the Senate votes here.
We will be monitoring closely how this plays out on the Malheur County landscape.