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Measure 49 Just Another Bend In A Long Land Use Road

After years of conflict over Oregon’s land-use planning system, voters Tuesday approved a measure billed as a compromise.

Measure 49 limits development under property compensation initiative, Measure 37, which passed in 2004. It also changes the process for reviewing claims, and addresses Measure 37’s legal uncertainties.

As Rob Manning reports, Measure 49’s passage Tuesday appears to have settled the dispute pitting a person’s right to build on property against potential harm to Oregon’s farms and forests.

When numbers at the “Yes” campaign’s party started showing 22 percent margin of victory for Measure 49, advocates made sure Willamette Valley farmer, Bruce Chapin, spoke first.

Bruce Chapin: “In order for agriculture to survive in this state, we need to have water, and we need to have land. And I want to thank you.”

Chapin was one of a number of farmers who argued that development allowed by Measure 37 could pave over farmland with sub-divisions, suck the water table dry, and lead to conflicts between remaining farms and newcomers.

Those same threats failed to convince voters three years ago, when Measure 37 passed easily. Bob Stacey with 1000 Friends of Oregon, says voters had to see the development claims in farm country.

Bob Stacey: “Oregonians weren’t able to foresee what could happen with 37, because they were voting out of compassion for people who they felt had been wronged. When they saw what could happen with 37, they said ‘we’ve got to fix this’.”

The “fixers” were Governor Ted Kulongoski’s deputy chief of staff, Tim Nesbitt, and a handful of Democratic lawmakers, including Lake Oswego Rep. and Attorney General candidate, Greg MacPherson.

Their idea was to allow long-time landowners to build up to three houses pretty easily. And up to ten houses, under certain conditions.

MacPherson says what became Measure 49 also answered Measure 37’s legal questions – like whether you can sell the houses you build.

Greg MacPherson: “I think the path is much clearer, because there were a whole lot of uncertainties with Measure 37 that generated hundreds of lawsuits, and many of those lawsuits will be resolved by the passage of this measure. There will still be uncertainty around the efforts by some owners to ‘try and beat the vote’, by attempting to develop before the people spoke on this measure.”

MacPherson says the state may need to intervene with owners who are bulldozing ahead with plans to build more than what the new law allows. But in the wake of Measure 49’s passage, the chief sponsor of the original property compensation law, David Hunnicutt, says his group, Oregonians in Action, does not anticipate challenging the law – unless he sees it’s not working.

David Hunnicutt: “We’ll go out and hold the ‘Yes’ campaign’s feet to the fire, and make sure that the relief that they promised long-time Oregon property owners under the measure is actually what those folks will get.”

Although Measure 49 supporters see a clear victory, Hunnicutt says this is not a stinging defeat. What the “Yes” campaign sees as a win for farms, Hunnicutt sees as a confirmation of property rights, backed by environmental groups he has long battled.

David Hunnicutt: “The irony of Measure 49 is that the same groups who spent five million dollars to pass Measure 49, had we brought Measure 49 and put it on the ballot a decade ago, they would have spent five million dollars to defeat the measure."

That's not how Measure 49 advocates see it. Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski says the new law is not so much about property rights as it is about confiming a commitment to a land-use planning system, which dates back more than thirty years.

Ted Kulongoski: “I think, more than anything, this is a reaffirmation of the very, very foundation of Senate Bill 100, the first land-use bill, which was around forest lands, ag lands. I think that’s what the public has come back around to.”

At the same time, Kulongoski says the large margin of victory —  61-to-39 percent — settles years of debate over private property rights.

Ted Kulongoski: “I think what this will do is the arguments about individual home owners being able to build a home on their property has been resolved. Now we’re going to go on to other issues.”

Advocates on both sides are looking forward to more meetings when a group called the “Big Look Task Force” gets together next year. That group formed in 2005, when lawmakers were unable to agree on meaningful changes to the land-use planning system.

It lost funding last summer, when Democratic lawmakers were focused on Measure 49. Now, with the property rights’ debate apparently settled, the Big Look can open its eyes, and survey the new Oregon landscape.

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