Shifting the economic reins

Hood River forum focuses on legislation restoring local land use control

The Oregon Association of Realtors believes that ailing school and public service budgets can only be cured by a healthy private tax base.

To overcome the high unemployment rates and continued funding problems in rural areas, the OAR has proposed legislation that is intended to create more jobs. House Bill 2689 would return the authority to local governments for development of existing industrial and commercial properties — without bureaucratic delays at the state level.

The OAR contends that state land-use rules have often made it too expensive and time consuming for companies to settle in outlying areas of Oregon — and have driven jobs away from the communities that need them most.

“This bill creates a new process but maintains the existing protections that we all know and want to see in our land-use processes,” said Harlan Levy, OAR staff attorney, during Monday’s economic summit at the Hood River Inn.

About 35 officials and community members attended the evening forum sponsored by the OAR to discuss the merits of the legislation. The audience members were encouraged to inform Sen. Rick Metsger, D-Mt. Hood, of their support for the opportunity to create more local jobs. HB 2689, which was co-sponsored by Metsger, passed through the House with strong support from Rep. Patti Smith, R-Corbett, and hearings are slated to begin today in the Senate Water and Land Use Committee on which Metsger serves.

Contacted Tuesday, Metsger said he will introduce an amendment to the legislation which more clearly defines the process for developing commercial properties. He said that move is necessary to prevent an unwanted strip mall or “big box” retailer from settling into a non-urban location.

“I strongly support the expansion of industrial sites but I think we have to be much more cautious about commercial sites so we don’t have unintended consequences,” he said.

Levy said the OAR decided to propose the bill to loosen regulations in rural areas after researching the high unemployment trends in the Gorge, along the coast and in eastern Oregon. He said communities that had historically relied upon timber harvest as their primary industry are now experiencing jobless rates that far exceeded their metro counterparts.

For example, Levy said since 1996, the unemployment rate in Washington County had remained static at about 3.8 percent, while Hood River’s had registered from nine to almost 11 percent.

He said that problem was compounded by state planning goals that had made it extremely difficult to bring replacement jobs to rural counties. OAR’s solution, he said, was to restore the control over development of properties already zoned for industrial and commercial use back to local governments.

To underscore the complexity of the existing hierarchy, Morrow County Planning Commissioner Art Kegler spoke at Monday’s forum about the problems facing a proposed development in Boardman.

Although the audience laughed about Kegler’s 12-inch stack of paperwork involved in the processing of a speedway application, he pointed out that it represented at least a $400,000 investiture by the company — as well as costly time delays. He said although the proposed racetrack and accompanying business park would have brought hundreds of new jobs to the economically-depressed area, it had run into state roadblocks that were forcing a severe cutback of the plans.

“I believe in the environment, I believe in development and I think they have to be balanced,” Kegler said.

Levy said HB 2689 would allow citizens more control over their own destinies, to either take action to set up economic development zones on properties already qualified for that purpose — or to let them sit vacant.

“Nothing will happen under this bill that is not what the community wants to happen, it is all about local decision making,” he said.

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