You are here

Willamette Valley


Land Use Laws in Oregon

In the 1960s, Oregonians began to recognize that the pattern of residential development in the basin was creating sprawling suburbs and visual clutter that was consuming agricultural land and obliterating the emerald matrix of farms, forests and small towns that they loved. What's more, their population was expected to double in twenty years. In 1973, in response to these concerns, then Governor Tom McCall inspired the state to enact land use legislation with the following words:

But there is a shameless threat in our environment and to the whole quality of our life and that is the unfettered despoiling of our land. Coastal condomania, sagebrush subdivisions and the ravenous rampage of suburbia, here in the Willamette Basin, all threaten to mock Oregon's status as the environmental model of this nation.

We're dismayed that we have not stopped misuse of the land, which is our most valuable finite natural resource. Umbrage at blatant disrespect for sound planning is not taken just here in Salem, because less than a month ago for example, Jefferson's County Commissioners appealed to me for a moratorium on subdivisions in that county, because the speculators, the speculators, have outrun local capacity for rational control.

We're in dire need of state land use policy, dire need of new subdivision law and new standards for planning and zoning by the counties and cities of our state.

The interests of Oregon for today and in the future must be protected from the grasping wastrels of the land. We must respect another truism - that unlimited and unregulated growth, leads inexorably to a lowered quality of life.

Since 1973, Oregon has maintained a strong statewide program for land use planning. The foundation of that program is a set of 19 statewide planning goals. The goals express the state's policies on land use and on related topics, such as citizen involvement, housing, and natural resources.

Most of the goals are accompanied by "guidelines," which are suggestions about how a goal may be applied.

Oregon's statewide goals are achieved through local comprehensive planning. State law requires each city and county to adopt a comprehensive plan and the zoning and land-division ordinances needed to put the plan into effect. The local comprehensive plans must be consistent with the statewide planning goals. Plans are reviewed for such consistency by the state's Land Conservation and Development Commission (the Commission). When the Commission officially approves a local government's plan, the plan is said to be "acknowledged." It then becomes the controlling document for land use in the area covered by that plan.

Although broadly successful, Oregon's planning program has not succeeded in protecting natural resources, especially wildlife habitat and scenic areas, from the effects of poorly designed or improperly located development. In 1996, the Commission repealed the statewide planning goal that mandated protection of outstanding scenic areas.

To launch the multi-media story on Oregon's land use laws and history, click Land Use Story: Gaining Ground.


Willamette Basin Alternative Futures Analysis. Pacific Northwest Ecosystem Research Consortium, August 2002. EPA EPA 600/R-02/045(a).

Willamette Valley