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Misleading Publicity Hurts Oregon Planning

In October,  Oregon State University sent out a press release to highlight the work of some of its academics.  If the point of the release was to draw attention to the work of these academics, it succeeded, but perhaps at the cost of accuracy.

The press release and the academic article it publicized describe the results of a “literature survey” made a few years ago for the Task Force on Land Use Planning.  The literature survey, based solely on previous research, concluded that there was insufficient empirical evidence, due to differences over how to measure “effectiveness,” on which to evaluate whether the state planning program was effective in preserving agricultural and forest lands.  However, the OSU report noted a “measurable degree of protection” of farm and forest lands from the program.  The report also added that there may have been some unanticipated impacts, such as the growth of “hobby farms,” that may not preserve agriculture.  It was the hobby farm aspect of the report that the press release emphasized and which led to the subsequent headlines that the report showed that the Oregon planning system was “not working as planned.”    The concern over hobby farms in the press release and article was based on data from the early days of the state’s planning program, before it was strengthened in 1993.  How either the article or press release could fail to note that these concerns were largely answered by these later program changes is difficult to understand and raises serious questions of academic judgment.  Besides relying primarily on obsolete data selections from a literature survey rather than more recent research that is fairly positive about the state land use program, the authors of the article and press release obviously did not display any effort to check with those engaged in the state’s resource lands planning program, who would have shared the ongoing and current data they maintain.  The report itself could well have been more aggressive in pursuing other available data and research on the effectiveness of the program:

  • Between 1973 and 1986, more than 300,000 acres of land in the Willamette Valley have been redesignated from rural development to Exclusive Farm Use (“EFU”) classifications.  These actions do not guarantee the land will be put to resource use, but provides compelling incentives to plant crops and prohibits residential subdivisions.
  • Based on a 1991 study that demonstrated that the program was not then protecting resource lands adequately, the Oregon legislature revised the program and LCDC adopted standards to ensure that dwellings in farm zones are for true farmers and prohibited creation of new parcels and additional dwellings in resource zones for hobby farms. 
  • Between 1992 and 1997, 71% of agricultural lands converted to development occurred either within urban growth boundaries or rural development “exception” areas.
  • The most recent study of the agricultural land use program was a 2008 study based in Hood River County showing that farm-related dwellings increased agricultural productivity and that the appropriate siting of non-farm dwellings did not lead to a significant decrease in farm use in the area.
The article and press release assume that dwellings are allowed if the landowner simply buys enough land to meet a modest minimum lot size.  This assumption is simply not true – the application for a farm dwelling must be shown to be part of a viable farming operation, grossing at least $40,000 or $80,000 per year in farm income, depending on the quality of the farmland, or meet a 160 acre minimum lot size in western Oregon or a higher standard in Eastern Oregon.  It is simply preposterous to argue that the Oregon planning program protects or encourages hobby farming. Oregon State University and certain media have done a disservice to the agricultural and conservation communities by preparing a press release and article based on a stale report that admits that farmlands have been preserved, despite some academic difficulties in measuring that result, and advancing gratuitous speculation on the quality of the state’s land use program.   It is foreseeable that others less knowledgeable may convert anecdotal speculation to conclusions not justified by the underlying report.  Improvident action predicated on an improvident analysis has, in this case, led to an unfortunate result. For further comment on this topic, review Mr. Sullivan's article in the Oregonian.

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