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Latest land-use hearing dominated by property rights advocates

Citizens in favor of easing restrictions tell commissioners their testimony represents the sentiments of the majority
News Editor
   April 2, 2003 — Freshmen commissioners Mary Zemke and Walt Ponsford ran a vigorous election campaign last fall based largely on a doctrine of carrying out the wishes of the county’s majority.
    On Wednesday, the duo faced their most challenging issue to date as they listened to testimony regarding the future of development in rural areas — a subject that divides county residents across deep philosophical lines.
    The recently sworn-in commissioners, along with Bill Bellamy, have before them a thoroughly reworked zoning ordinance draft that, for the most part, maintains the status quo by removing the so-called “Lot of Record” and other provisions that would have allowed more homes in the farmland, rangeland and forest resource zones.
    And for the first time in the history of this 3-year-old land-use quagmire, the majority of the 50 people packed into the county’s meeting room last Wednesday were there to testify against the rollbacks the commissioners appear set to adopt.
    “I’ve been in development for 40 years and this is the first time in my life I have ever heard of something so ridiculous,” said Robert Hyde, owner of Lake Simtustus RV Park. In not-so-strong words, Hyde’s sentiments were shared by at least 18 others who raised several different concerns with the draft ordinance, including farmers, ranchers, Realtors and developers.
    Five individuals voiced their support for the ordinance, including representatives of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the Jefferson County Farm Bureau and 1,000 Friends of Oregon, the nonprofit land-use preservation advocacy group.
    These proponents of the current draft twice have appealed previous versions of the zoning ordinance passed under the former commission that included Janet Brown, Mike Ahern and Bellamy. First adopted in January 2002 in a 2-1 vote, the Ahern-Bellamy version allowed the Lot of Record in the county’s exclusive farm-use zones.
    That would have allowed property owners who met certain criteria to build a single-family home on land they had owned prior to 1985 — when land-use laws set restrictions on development.
    Responding to strong testimony against the removal of that provision, Zemke said the current commission is not against opening certain areas of agricultural land to development.
    “To allow the room for the development we want to have — and we definitely have some real strong plans in that direction — we want to take certain areas and rezone it,” she said. “So rather than weakening our overall zoning of areas, we want to take selective areas and rezone them.”
    Until Wednesday, public testimony in countless prior hearings largely has been against easing development restrictions in the farmland and rangeland zones. County staff rewrote the current draft ordinance based on discussions the new commission had with the appellants during workshops.
    Tami MacLeod, a Bend attorney representing the Confederated Tribes, said, “The election of commissioner Zemke and Ponsford opened up a door for the parties to work together. “I’d describe it as a very cooperative effort.”
    Although the changing of the guard brought with it an apparent change in philosophy, most offering testimony fiercely defended the Lot of Record concept, and challenged Ponsford, Zemke and Bellamy to follow what they believed was the majority.
    Katie Southwick, a rancher who said the current draft will prevent her from building on 72 acres her family has owned for 30 years, told the commissioners her land deserves to be grandfathered in.
    “When you were running your campaigns, you said you would listen to what the people wanted,” Southwick said.
    Vikki Breese, a lobbyist with the Central Oregon Association of Realtors, testified that the passage of Measure 56 in 1998 and Measure 7 in 2000 — both related to easing land-use restrictions; and both approved by a majority of Jefferson County voters — suggests the public favors concepts like the Lot of Record.
    “Jefferson County voters have repeatedly voiced their approval of flexibility in stringent land-use regulations,” she said.
    Connie Kraus, who said she owned 75 acres just outside of Madras, criticized the commissioners for bending over backward to accommodate what she views as “a few farmers” and other special interest groups.
    “This seems more like a socialistic society than free enterprise,” Kraus said.
    Although land-use preservation advocates were considerably quieter and fewer in numbers than at previous hearings, they also made their voice heard.
    Gary Harris of the Farm Bureau said the ordinance before the commissioners was the first draft that didn’t violate the county’s comprehensive plan.
    Harris and his associates have vigorously argued that Lot of Record violates Goal 3 of that plan, which states: “To preserve and maintain agricultural lands for agricultural use.”
    Harris said loosening restrictions “further erodes the land we are trying to save.”
    “We see what happens in Deschutes County,” Harris said. “You can’t build your way to prosperity.”
    Ponsford, the commission chairman, handed his duties over to Zemke for the hearing. He and Bellamy listened quietly to the testimony, but made few comments.
    The commission closed the public hearing and set deliberations for 2 p.m. on April 10. The commissioners have given indications of how they will vote.
    Bellamy has voted twice previously to approve the Lot of Record provision. Before getting elected, Zemke intervened in both appeals of the former commission’s ordinance. Her statements last Wednesday also suggest she prefers to rezone certain areas, not ease restrictions across all exclusive farm-use zones.
    Ponsford, meanwhile, had said he was working to utilize Central Oregon Community College students to conduct a poll of the county’s ranchers and farmers, but that project never materialized. Ponsford said he wanted to determine where most county residents truly stand on land-use policy, and had suggested he would vote with the majority.