Property rights fight headed for Nov. ballot


It's taken Jim LeTourneux decades to turn his 430-acre tree farm in western Yamhill County into a profitable, award-winning operation, but there's something on the horizon he worries could cause problems.

It's not the threat of wildfires, or a beetle infestation or even swings in worldwide demand for lumber. Rather, it's a proposal by a homebuilder to develop land across from his property with dozens of home sites.

LeTourneux envisions conflicts with neighbors upset by the sight of clearcuts, the aerial spraying of herbicides and the noise generated by a tree farm.

"Logging operations and residential areas just make for a bad mix," he says, standing on a 1,000-foot rise on his land, and scanning the rolling hills of Yamhill County, in the lush Willamette Valley.

Yamhill County is the center of Oregon's wine country, which annually draws thousands of visitors to sample its rural delights, and, increasingly, more people wanting to move to the country.

But longtime landowner Mary Holtan worries that she's going to be thwarted by government in her effort to subdivide 120 acres she co-owns east of Newberg.

Holtan, 65, whose husband died three years ago, still is commuting daily to her job at a Portland insurance company but hopes to retire someday with income from subdividing her property &

which is zoned as farm land &

into 15 home sites and selling them.

"I'm tired. I would like to quit commuting and have a decent retirement income," she says.

LeTourneux, Holtan and others like them will have a lot riding on the outcome of the Nov. 6 special election, when Oregon voters will be asked to scale back a property rights law they passed three years ago.

The 2004 law, known as Measure 37, requires governments to let people use their land however they could have when they bought it or pay for lost value. Other states have compensation laws, but they are more limited than Oregon's law.

Critics say the 2004 law has opened the door to large-scale housing developments on farm and forest land,"" a move some fear will lead to California-style sprawl in Oregon's fertile Willamette Valley and other rural areas.

Measure 49, the proposed rewrite that will be on this November's ballot, would allow some property owners to build up to three homes but curb larger subdivisions and industrial development allowed under the 2004 law.

One the one side of the fight are landowners such as Holtan who got new property rights under Measure 37 and don't want to lose them. The other side includes people like LeTourneux &

neighbors of claimants who say Measure 37 will hurt farms, forests and the state's quality of life.

Oregon has long been a flashpoint in the nation's battles over land use and property rights. The state imposed some of the nation's strictest limits in the 1970s to protect farmland and other open spaces from unbridled development.

Then, in 2004, voters staged a property rights revolt by passing Measure 37, the compensation law.

Smart-growth advocates and property rights groups around the country are watching Oregon's Nov. 6 election with keen interest.

That's particularly true for property rights advocates, who after Oregon's 2004 vote jubilantly predicted that the new law would open the floodgate for similar laws across the country.

But just three years later, the movement seems to have lost some momentum.

Voters in California, Idaho and Washington state all rejected similar property rights laws in November 2006 &

although one did pass in Arizona &

and spinoff measures failed to qualify for the ballot in a half-dozen other states.

Donald Chen of the Smart Growth America advocacy group in Washington, D.C., called Oregon's 1970s land use planning program a "model" for the nation.

"The property rights activists went after the Oregon law in 2004 just because it was so successful" in curbing sprawl, Chen said. "The vote in Oregon this fall is going to be an opportunity for Oregonians to re-establish their commitment to sensible land management."

On the other side of the issue, a spokesman for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, said he thinks Oregon voters will uphold their 2004 decision by rejecting the Measure 49 rewrite.

"If the people of Oregon continue to defend their own property rights, we think citizens in other states will wake up and do likewise," Todd Gaziano said in an interview.

The 2004 law was approved by an overwhelming majority of voters who said at the time that the state's land use regulations were unfair to property owners.

But Oregonians seem to be having some second thoughts about that law.

That's in part because state and local officials have struggled to keep up with an inundation of 7,000 claims for compensation by property owners. Unable to afford to compensate for the claims, governments often have simply waived land-use rules, telling property owners to go ahead and apply for building permits.

The flood of claims is worrying neighbors about the development plans of property owners who file Measure 37 claims. Many people in those areas &

mainly rural &

moved there for the peace and quiet of the countryside, not to live next door to a subdivision.

Liz Kaufman of the Yes on Measure 49 committee thinks a lot of Oregonians who voted for the 2004 law now are having "buyers' remorse."

"Our state has protected our farm land and forests for decades. Why would we want to give that up now?" Kaufman said. "Now that people have seen what Measure 37 has brought us, let's give people a chance to decide if that's what they really want."

But Dave Hunnicutt of Oregonians in Action, the group that sponsored Measure 37, said land use activists are exaggerating the effects of the 2004 law.

Hunnicutt said the 7,000 claims for compensation don't mean there's been a profusion of developments around the state.

He noted that when land-use regulations are waived for a property owner, it does not automatically translate into a development. Property owners still must come up with building permits, water and sewer permits if necessary, and financing, Hunnicutt said.

"For three years, we've been listening to Chicken Little warnings that the sky is about to fall. It hasn't happened," he said.

As for the proposed Measure 49 rewrite, Hunnicutt said it places unfair restrictions on people's property rights.

"It's your home and your property; Nobody should take that from you without compensating you," he said.

Under the rewrite, Measure 37 claimants who applied to build as many as three homes would get top priority. Four to 10 homes would be possible outside high-value farm and forest lands and areas with water shortages, but only after a rigorous financial analysis. Larger subdivisions and commercial development would be banned.

During its session this year, the Oregon Legislature took a crack at trying to address complaints about the law. Lawmakers failed to reach consensus, though, and punted the issue back to voters.

Backers of the Measure 49 rewrite hope it will satisfy calls for land use laws that are fair to property owners, while protecting the scenery and rural character that Oregon is famous for.

Share This Story