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on August 27, 2015 at 6:30 AM, updated August 28, 2015 at 11:58 AM
David Hunnicutt, executive director of Oregonians in Action, has been involved in some of the state’s most important land-use battles over the past two decades. His organization is still active, but is focusing more on effecting change legislatively rather than through the courts. (Dana Tims/Staff)
The group, then based in Tigard, had just sponsored Measure 37, the voter-approved initiative that rolled back many of the central tenets of Oregon’s groundbreaking statewide land-use laws.
Only a few years prior, it had prevailed in two other pivotal cases. In one of those, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling limiting the abilities of local governments to use zoning regulations to force property owners to make unrelated public improvements. The other was an initiative requiring government to reimburse landowners when regulations reduced the value of their property. Subsequent court rulings snipped off significant pieces of those victories.
Despite maintaining a decidedly lower profile these days, Hunnicutt is intent on keeping his organization at the forefront when it comes to Oregon land-use issues.
Hunnicutt, preparing for a move to new headquarters next month in Newberg, recently discussed issues such as urban growth boundaries, how his organization continues to evolve and the future of land-use laws in Oregon. His answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q) Compared to 10 years ago, we don’t hear as much about Oregonians in Action these days. What’s the group’s status?
A) We’re now in our 26th year and we’re still going strong. Land-use and property issues have quieted down considerably in Oregon, which is why you’ve not heard as much about us the past few years.
Q) Your group sponsored Measure 37, which really rolled back regulations. The Legislature then came up with Measure 49, which placed big limits on the development Measure 37 would have allowed. What’s been the combined effect of those two important measures?
A) Those measures, taken together, served as a relief valve. They let a lot of pressure go by solving many of the cries for help that property owners, especially in rural areas, had been complaining about so bitterly. To the extent that Oregon’s land-use laws have been failures, it’s because they failed to take into account regional differences around the state. That hasn’t changed at all and it’s why we are still working on passing legislation addressing some of those issues.
Q) So you’re involved legislatively these days?
A) Definitely. We spent a lot of time this past session working on land-use laws important to rural Oregon. That’s where our base has always been. We’ve always been a rural organization. We passed a bill dealing with owners in rural areas that had airstrips. Another dealt with mining in eastern Oregon. That was a big deal. Still another bill dealt with title issues between the state and property owners whose lands had dredge spoils dumped on them. We were very busy and also very successful
A) Except for issues such as Measures 37 and 49, land-use never occupies the public’s eye, or rarely does. When people list their top issues, it’s schools, taxes, crime, the economy – not whether farmer Jones can build a house on his property unless he makes $80,000 from farming it. That said, our work is primarily legislative these days. Unless a reporter calls, there’s no reason for me to trumpet what we’re doing in Salem until after it happens.
Q) Is the urban growth boundary a bad idea?
A) I don’t think it’s a bad concept. We’ve just managed to hamstring ourselves with the rigidity of it. Every single boundary expansion decision, for instance, has resulted in lawsuits. As much as I like some Metro councilors, I refer to them as Rumpelstiltskin in reverse—they turn gold into straw. Pinning the region’s future growth plans on Damascus? That’s just beyond comprehension.
Q) You are clearly not satisfied with much of Oregon’s land-use planning system. How would you like to see it evolve?
A) I chafe at the notion that we’ve been a model system or pioneer. If that were the case, we’d already have seen other states following our lead by enacting similar systems. That hasn’t happened. What I do expect to see is Oregon taking more of the approach that Washington does by giving local governments much more say in key planning decisions. We had a bill in the last session to that effect. It failed, but still had bipartisan support. We plan to revive it next time and I’m guessing it will pass.
Q) Any final thoughts?
A) We’re still doing well and I’m happy with our work. We have more than 10,000 supporters and we are working an active docket of court cases. That said, the way to change land use in Oregon is through the Legislature, not through the courts, and that’s where we’ll continue to focus our efforts.
— Dana Tims