SALEM — Malheur County representatives took their case for allowing exclusive farm use land in the area to be rezoned for residential use to the House Agricultural and Land Use Committee on Thursday, facing opposition from other people testifying.

The rezone permission is being sought for the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Region in the county. The aim is to make more land available for housing development, particularly those people looking living in a rural setting. The plan would only be for the Border Economic Development Region in the populated area of northern Malheur County.

Under Oregon’s land use laws, taking land that is zoned EFU and putting homes on it is highly restricted. This is in contrast to neighboring Idaho, where homes sited on small rural lots amid farmland are common.

Members of the Border Board, which was formed along with the region, developed the legislative concept which became House Bill 2456. It was introduced by state Rep. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, and testified on during Thursday’s hearing.

According to the bill, the land that would be allowed to be rezoned would not have been farmed for at least three consecutive years prior and would not be high-value farmland.

Testifying by video conference call into the committee, Border Board member Ralph Poole outlined the need for more residential development. He said that about 70 percent of the approximate 1,200 employees at the Snake River Correctional Institution are living in Idaho, and that the local hospital has difficulty in bringing doctors in because of lack of housing.

In 2018, there have been 23 new homes built in Malheur County compared to 138 in Payette County.

The board is not proposing a patchwork of subdivisions side-by-side with cornfields, Poole said, but small acreage farms that many people are seeking.

Another board member, testifying remotely was Tiffany Cruickshank, who said as being in an agriculture county, the board understands the need to protect farmland. However, the bill was focused on land that is not farmable and would allow sagebrush covered ridgelines to be developed for housing.

“We do not want to up give up high-value farmland,” Cruickshank said.

Malheur County Judge Dan Joyce, giving testimony in Salem, echoed the other remarks, saying there are not a lot of housing options in the county and passage of the bill was essential for prosperity of eastern Oregon.

Speaking in opposition to the bill, Nathan Hovekamp with Central Oregon Landwatch, said the proposal could be a start to undermining the state’s land use system.

Peggy Lynch, with the Oregon League of Women Voters, also spoke in opposition to the bill. She said the housing issues needed to be addressed within the urban growth boundaries, rather than on farmland, and suggested that non-high value farmland can still be used for agriculture purposes such as cattle.

Ellen Miller, representing Oregon Home Builders Association, said the organization was not taking a position on the bill since it does not have a chapter in Malheur County, and contractors are setting up shop in Idaho.

No other action on the bill is scheduled at this time.

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Larry Meyer is a reporter for the Argus Observer.

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