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Coastal Planning

Coastal Land Use

"Land use" refers specifically to human uses of the land. The term "land cover" is used for features such as forests, grasslands, rivers and streams. Oregon has a rich history of land use planning and management. Examples range from local efforts in urban areas to respond to repaid growth in the 1950s to Oregon's landmark statewide legislation in 1973 to the recent passage of Measure 37. On Oregon's coast, local planners and resource managers face slightly different issues that those in the Willamette Valley or east of the Cascades. Limited buildable terrain, increased demand for oceanfront housing and aging or missing infrastructure combine to make planning for growth on the coast very challenging.

Oregon's land use laws and the statewide planning goals have put some boundaries around development and overbuilding. Goals 16, 17 and 18 specifically address estuarine resources, coastal shorelines, beaches and dunes. Even so, pressure from a growing population as well as more visitors place coastal property at risk of over development, reducing the public's access to the magnificent coastline and potentially permanently altering a part of Oregon valued by all.

In a 1999 speech to the Lincoln County League of Women Voters, Robert Liberty of 1000 Friends of Oregon cited several examples of the challenges of coastal land use planning including these:

  • Long stretches of the coast are zoned for development because they have been "excepted" from state land use goals intended to protect farm and forest lands. Some 80,000 acres of coastal counties are designated "exception" areas, equaling a strip 1/2 mile wide on both sides of Highway 101, stretching for 125 miles
  • Coastal developments are often approved beside, around and on coastal lakes, wetlands and dunes, threatening these shrinking natural areas
  • Public access to beaches is becomingly increasingly difficult
  • Coastal forests east of Highway 101 are under increasing residential development pressure

Understanding the history of land use planning in Oregon helps all Oregonians make wise decisions about the future of our land. The North Coast is unique in its beautiful vistas, rugged geology and varied communities. Yet, it is part of the state and relies on state law and policies to help shape its future.

In 1919, the State of Oregon granted authority to cities to plan and zone; this was challenged in court and upheld as valid in 1925, two years before the U.S. Supreme Court established a national precedent for such authority.

Planning remained solely a city function until 1947, when the legislature extended similar authority to counties in response to chaotic growth of urban fringe areas during the boom years after World War II. Counties were authorized to form planning commissions which were required to develop zoning and other regulations to carry out their plans.

Some of the most notable features of our present land use program were formed early in Oregon's history. For example, Crater Lake was recognized as a unique and special treasure and President Cleveland withdrew it from homestead claims in 1885. In 1913, Governor Oswald West convinced the legislature to designate all Oregon beaches as a public highway; the law declared that from the mouth of the Columbia River to the California border, the entire beach between low and high tides would be forever open to the public. Special tax treatment for land in farm zones became effective in 1961, and by 1963 Exclusive Farm Use zones had been created to enable counties to protect good farmland.

Oregon was changing rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s. Conflicts were heating up over zoning, subdivision controls, public works, and other public activities relating to land use. Rapid western migration spilled over the California border into Oregon's interior valleys. Economic transformation reduced the demand for farm and forest workers and increased the demand for skilled professionals. Rising incomes and falling transportation costs enabled urban workers to commute from mini-farms and ranchettes to jobs in large cities. Combined, these trends made farm land in the Willamette Valley more valuable to urban commuters than to farmers, forests more valuable for recreation than timber, and urban residents more interested in urban growth management than in urban growth.

The 1960s brought land use planning issues in Oregon to a head. For example, citizen worries about losing access to the Pacific coast led to the 1967 Beach Bill which decreed that all land within sixteen vertical feet of the average low tide mark belongs to the people of Oregon and guarantees the public free and uninterrupted use of Oregon's 363 miles of coastal beaches. Only one other state, Hawaii, guarantees public access from the surf line to the vegetation line.

Oregonians were calling for a new land ethic to redefine the balance between private property and the needs of the statewide community, both then and in the future.

Passed in 1969, Senate Bill 10 established a basic program for statewide planning. Senate Bill 10 required local governments to draw up comprehensive plans and established ten goals to guide cities and counties in their planning. The bills basic concern was "To conserve prime farm lands for the production of crops and provide for an orderly and efficient transition from rural to urban land use."

Senate Bill 10 created controversy based on objections relative to property rights and local control. In 1970 Ballot Measure 11 sought to repeal Senate Bill 10 and was defeated by a vote of 56 percent to 44 percent. However, Senate Bill 10 accomplished little because no money was allocated for the implementation process, nor was any agency established to implement the goals on a statewide level.

Popular support for statewide reform was sharply divided between the Willamette Valley and other regions of the state. The Willamette Valley was starting to look more and more like Southern California, a resemblance many Oregonians sought to avoid. Urban development in the Valley seemed beyond the capabilities, or interests, of local governments to control. Land use reform also promised environmental protection and resource conservation. For those whose livelihoods were dependent on resource extraction and development, statewide reform threatened jobs.

In 1971, Hector Macpherson, a Republican, was elected to the Oregon Senate. In a single term, he forged a bi-partisan coalition with urban Democrats to bring growth management and farm preservation to the forefront of the 1973 legislature.

"Hector initiated and helped lead the public discussion on the need for comprehensive planning to protect Oregon's valuable farm and forest resource lands," said Bruce Andrews, former director of the State of Oregon Department of Agriculture. "He helped people realize that farmland was not undeveloped open space available for future development, but rather a limited, nonrenewable resource." Largely as a result of his efforts, said Andrews, "Oregon's farmland base has been spared the careless sprawl so prevalent in other parts of the country."

Governor Tom McCalls opening address to the 1973 Legislative Assembly castigated "sagebrush subdivisions, coastal condomania, and the ravenous rampages of suburbia." He requested legislation establishing a statewide program for land-use planning. McCall campaigned across the state, gaining public and media support to counter the opposition.

Senate Bill 10 evolved into Senate Bill 100 which regulated land use far more extensively. Senate Bill 100 created the Land Conservation and Development Commission (LCDC) and directed it to establish new statewide planning goals and guidelines. The bill required that every Oregon city and county prepare a comprehensive plan in accordance with these new state goals. Oregon's land use program does not necessarily offer solutions to land use conflicts but, instead, a political process through which land use conflicts can be resolved.

The 1973 legislature also passed Senate Bill 101, a property tax relief bill that awarded tax reductions to owners of farm and forest lands. The legislature required county assessors to levy taxes on lower "special valuations" instead of real market valuations. This, in effect, indirectly compensated farmers and owners of timber lands for land use restrictions and lowered their annual fixed operating costs. From 1974 to 2004, farmers received a total of over $3.8 billion in tax relief. From 1976 until 2004, owners of tax-deferred timber land received about $1.1 billion in tax relief.

One of the key steps in the passage of Senate Bill 100 was adoption of a statement of legislative intent that state goals and guidelines were to be written by the Land Conservation and Development Commission (LCDC) only after wide public input. The new Commission devoted most of 1974 to following that directive. Informational mailers with questionnaires went out to 100,000 voters. Commissioners and staff met with chambers of commerce, elected officials, League of Women Voters chapters, and business clubs. They held nearly one hundred workshops around the state. Ten thousand people participated directly in the drafting process. The statewide goals have not been seriously challenged, in part, because the workshop process built a wide constituency of voters with a personal stake in the success of the program.

One of the most basic, and most visible, aspects of Senate Bill 100 was the creation of Urban Growth Boundaries (UGBs) which place which place limits on urban development. The intent of UGBs is not to limit growth but to manage its location. By restricting urban development to a well-defined, contiguous area, it is believed that growth can be accommodated without urban sprawl.

Oregon's rate of farmland loss has declined considerably since the planning program went into effect. According to the U.S. Census of Agriculture, between 1959 and 1974 our state lost almost 3 million acres of farmland. Between 1974 and 1992, we lost 632,000 acres. This success is highlighted when compared to neighboring states. Between 1978 and 1992, California lost 11.5% of its farm acreage; Idaho lost 8.4%; Washington, 6%; and Oregon, 2.5%.

Oregon's land use program has been challenged by initiatives many times since 1973. It won voter approval by a margin of 57% to 43% in 1976 and 61% to 39% in 1978.

Then, during the depression of 1981-82, LCDC became the target of complaints that planning requirements inhibited economic development. Ballot Measure 6 called for the abolition of LCDC, return of all land use planning authority to localities, and retention of state goals purely as guidelines. Newspaper editorial discussions flared, although most papers agreed with the Eugene Register-Guard (October 10, 1982) which said, "Those sincerely concerned with promoting economic development in Oregon should cheer this program rather than fight it." A task force, headed by Umatilla County farmer Stafford Hansell, heard testimony from more than 400 Oregonians and reported essentially the same conclusions. Ballot Measure 6 failed 45% - 55%.

In 2000, Oregon voters passed Ballot Measure 7 with 53% of the vote. Ballot Measure 7 created a constitutional amendment that required the state to compensate landowners when state regulations reduced the value of their property. In 2002, the Oregon Supreme Court declared that Ballot Measure 7 unconstitutional. In light of Ballot Measure 7, the state legislature considered compensation programs in 2001 and 2003. Ultimately, however, the body could not reach agreement on how to fund such a proposal and enacted nothing.

Ballot Measure 7 was a key victory for property rights advocates, who saw its passage as proof that thousands of Oregonians were frustrated and burdened by overly restrictive land use regulations that essentially designated winners and losers through exclusionary zoning.

A successful challenge came in 2004 when Ballot Measure 37 passed with 61% of the vote. The measure created a new statute requiring state and local governments to either waive land use regulations or compensate landowners when a regulation reduces a property's fair market value. Proponents of Ballot Measure 37, led by the property rights group Oregonians in Action, argued that voters should pass it to protect private property rights from overly restrictive and intrusive government regulations.

Opponents of Ballot Measure 37, led by 1000 Friends of Oregon, argued that the measure would create a complex and bureaucratic land use system, threaten the protection of farmland, and limit the ability of communities to plan for the future. They also said Ballot Measure 37 would roll back a land use planning system that has been very successful at protecting farm and forest land, containing urban sprawl, protecting natural resources, and has broad public support.

As of December 4, 2006, over 6,500 claims had been received under Ballot Measure 37 requesting more than $10 billion in total compensation.

The Oregon legislature responded to Ballot Measure 37, in part, by creating the Oregon Task Force on Land Use Planning, whose mission is to chart the future of the states 30-year-old land use planning system. Commonly referred to as the "Big Look", the task force is the result of Senate Bill 82, in which the Legislature and the Governor called for a broad review of the state land use planning program and recommendations for any needed changes to land-use policy. Ballot Measure 37 is considered one of the top issues the 2007 Oregon Legislature needs to address.

Citizen involvement in land use planning peaked in the 1970s. For many Oregonians today, planning is part of a bureaucratic routine rather than an active contributor to livability. There is a need to reinvigorate public interest and involvement as new planning issues emerge.

The Oregon land use planning program is widely recognized for its pioneering efforts to preserve the principle of local responsibility for land use decisions while simultaneously defining a broader public interest at the state level. The program has matured as populations and economies have changed. The future will bring even more change. Models predict that by 2040, the states population will grow by 46 percent to 5.2 million, mostly in the Willamette Valley.

But one value is unlikely to change: Oregonians recognize that they have a unique and outstanding quality of life which is directly tied to the land. If this notion can been collectively articulated through the land use planning program, the quality of life in Oregon may endure to the benefit of future generations.

For more information about coastal land use see the Coastal Planning page.


Abbott, Carl, Deboarh Howe and Sy Adler. Planning the Oregon Way: A twenty year evaluation. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press. 1994.

Gray, John D. and Katie Shriver. Land Use Planning Information for the Citizens of Oregon. Portland , OR: Oregon Community Foundation. 2006.

Liberty, Robert. The Future of the Oregon Coast: Can It Be Saved from Sprawl? Portland, OR: 1000 Friends of Oregon. 1999.

Martin, Sheila A. Katie Shriver and Portland State Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies. Documenting the Impact of Measure 37: Selected Case Studies. Portland, OR: Portland State University. 2006.

Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development. Introductory Guide to Land Use Planning for Small Cities and Counties in Oregon. Salem, OR: The Department, 2007.

Oregonians in Action [Accessed April 15, 2007].

Savonen, Carol. 1998. A Snapshot of Salmon in Oregon: Urban Life. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Extension Service. EM 8722.

Compiled by John Ame, Science Writer (2007); Revised by Janet Webster, Head Librarian, Guin Library