Grapegrowers in Oregon's Willamette Valley are cheering two recent court decisions backing strict land use rules in their state. The rules, which limit development, especially in agricultural and forest areas, are crucial to preserving Oregon's wine regions, they argue. After 40 years of debate, however, the battle over land use is far from over.
The contentious fight over development rights stretches back to 1973, when Oregon's legislature passed what was then the most comprehensive land use law in the country. It mandated that each county develop a plan that would allow the state's population to grow but also protect farmland and undeveloped areas. It has been challenged repeatedly: Developers and various companies argued that the restrictions were unfriendly to business; property owners argued that the rules unfairly lowered their land values and were a virtual government land grab.
In 2004, voters passed Measure 37, which gave property owners the right to develop their land under rules that were in effect when they bought it. Supporters claimed it would protect property owners' rights and allow them to divide large rural properties and build a few houses on them. Leigh Ellison is a doctor whose family owns 100 acres in the heart of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She voted in favor of Measure 37 when it was proposed. “We felt that property owners should have the right to do with their land as they saw fit without interference from the state,” said Ellison.
But after the vote, Ellison and other residents were alarmed by the consequences, especially the idea of large housing developments on farmland. “A landslide of applications for housing developments, subdivisions, quarries, strip malls, casinos and a lot of other nutty stuff” in valuable wine country areas were filed, said Eric Lemelson, owner of Lemelson Vineyards in the Willamette Valley. “I had to buy land from neighbors who were talking about filing a claim to allow them to develop dozens of homes on a piece of land with good vineyard potential and no groundwater.”
By early 2007, landowners had filed 7,562 claims for land use waivers on 750,898 acres statewide. One environmental group said the claims included 98,202 acres in the Willamette wine region. The legislature responded by creating Measure 49, which voters approved that November. The new law prevented commercial or industrial development on land previously reserved for homes, farms or forest. It did allow property owners to build up to three homes on their farmland.
Challenges were inevitable, and a federal judge ruled in 2008 that any claims already approved under Measure 37 were binding contracts. But in July, a federal court of appeals overturned that decision. And on Sept. 1, Oregon's Court of Appeals rejected a challenge to the law filed by a man who had approval under 37 to build a 39-acre subdivision of homes in Yamhill County, the heart of Willamette wine country. This is the first of four challenges in Yamhill and may set a precedent for the others. The legal battle could also impact other western wine regions, where development is always a sensitive issue.
“Oregon winegrowers know the importance of preserving prime agricultural land," said David Adelsheim, president of Adelsheim Vineyard, in a statement after the ruling. "Oregon’s land use laws are the reason our industry exists today. Without Oregon’s comprehensive land use system, the hillsides our industry needs to produce the best grapes would have been dotted with housing developments instead of rows of Pinot noir vines. We need to be able to count on the same protections going forward to ensure that Oregon wines continue to flourish.”