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Rural Planning and Development

Farm with green fieldOregon's statewide planning program conserves rural land for farming and forestry, protects natural resources and wildlife habitat, and allows development in appropriate places. The program discourages "sprawling" development that takes place outside an urban growth boundary. However, rural development is permitted under certain circumstances. A county decides where rural development should be allowed by following what is called the "exceptions process." Rural residential, recreational, commercial, and industrial zones (in "exception areas") allow development in certain rural areas (see below). All rural development is overseen by the counties.

The term "rural" means different things to different people. In Oregon's statewide planning program, "rural land" is, generally, land outside of an urban growth boundary. (Land inside of an urban growth boundary is never considered "rural".) "Rural use" is harder to define; but the Land Conservation and Development Commission has listed allowed rural uses in its administrative rules.

Non-farm and non-forest uses are permitted in exclusive farm use and forest zones. See Farm and Forest Protection for more information on these uses.

Statewide Planning Goal 14, Urbanization, limits new urban uses outside of urban growth boundaries. Urban growth boundaries have been a key component of the planning program as they prevent sprawl of urban uses across the rural landscape.

Statewide Planning Goal 11, Public Facilities and Services limits extension of urban services such as sewerage to areas outside of urban growth boundaries in order to lessen demand for urban development in rural areas.

Rural land that has physical properties that make it suitable for farm or forest use is generally required to be planned and zoned for those resource uses. In some cases, a county may approve an "exception" to Statewide Planning Goal 3, Agricultural Lands, and/or Goal 4, Forest Lands, to zone land for other uses.

The most common reason for "taking an exception" is that the land is "physically developed" or "irrevocably committed" to non-farm and non-forest uses. Think of a rural residential neighborhood or a crossroads store that existed before the statewide planning goals took effect. If an area is shown to be committed to non-resource use, infill development is permitted at a rural scale. Outward expansion of development would require a new exception. Zoning of these exception areas must limit uses to those that are the same as existing uses (for example, commercial zoning for a store) or compatible rural uses.

A county can also take an exception to Goal 3 and Goal 4 if there is a strong reason those goals should not apply. In this case, the county must look at compatibility of the proposed use with existing adjacent uses and compare the long-term land use effects of placing the proposed use in the proposed location versus other locations. Zoning of a "reasons" exception area must limit allowed uses to those used to show that the exception is justified.

Other goals, in addition to Goal 3 and Goal 4, may be subject to an exception. For example, a county must take an exception to Goal 14, Urbanization, in order to allow an urban use on rural land. State rules for taking an exception and zoning of exception areas are located at:

OAR 660-004

OAR 660-014-0030

OAR 660-014-0040

Exception areas zoned for rural residential use are subject to their own rule. As introduced above, Goal 14 limits urban development outside urban growth boundaries, and the rule implementing Goal 14 for rural residential areas specifies the level of development a county may allow without the area becoming urbanized. The level of development is regulated by the minimum parcel size for creation of new parcels and limiting parcels to one dwelling.

For exception areas that existed before the rule went into effect (October 4, 2000), the smallest minimum parcel size allowed by rule is whatever the county already allowed as long as it is two acres or larger. Currently, counties are prohibited from allowing the creation of new parcels smaller than two acres. For a new exception area, the minimum parcel size must be at least 10 acres, with allowance for clustering. This only applies to the creation of new parcels; existing parcels are allowed one dwelling regardless of size.

The rule for rural residential zoning, OAR 660-004-0040, establishes that, for residential zoning, "rural use" means one dwelling per 10 acres.

The goals and rules regulating rural uses recognize that some communities in the state did not incorporate as a city. Some of these communities are indistinguishable from a small city, while others are a little more than a wide spot in the road. The level and intensity of residential, commercial, and industrial development is allowed to be greater in an unincorporated community than on other rural land, but less than inside an urban growth boundary. Urban services such as sewer and water are allowed.

The rules that guide planning and zoning of unincorporated communities establish four types of communities: urban unincorporated communities (the largest examples), rural communities (smaller and predominantly residential), rural service centers (predominantly commercial or industrial), and resort communities (primarily for recreation). Planning and zoning requirements for each are different. Residential use is generally limited by the capacity of local public facilities and services such as sewer and water. The rule includes building-size limits for some commercial and industrial uses.

The rules for planning and zoning unincorporated communities can be found at OAR chapter 660, division 22.

Many existing or former rural employment centers are exception areas with industrial zoning. The statewide planning goals encourage large, intensive uses to locate in urban areas. But many industrial uses, particularly wood-product mill sites, are located near the resource (i.e., the forest), and were often created before the goals were enacted. Many of these mills have since closed, but are still viewed as potential sites for rural employment.

Oregon's land use policy regarding rural industrial land is contained in statute and rule. Goal 14, Urbanization, provides that "in unincorporated communities outside urban growth boundaries counties may approve uses, public facilities and services more intensive than allowed on rural lands." This means that county zoning provisions must, generally, limit uses in rural industrial zones to those that are "less intensive" than those allowed in unincorporated communities. There is an administrative rule that specifically addresses the level or intensity of uses allowed in rural industrial exception areas. However, it is only determined by inference from the "unincorporated communities" rules in OAR chapter 660, division 22.

Statutes amend the limits set by goals and rules for some sites and geographic areas. ORS 197.713 removes size limits if the industrial zone is not in the Willamette Valley or it is more than three miles from an urban growth boundary with a population of 20,000 or larger. ORS 197.719 removes any size limits for "abandoned" and "diminished" mill sites and allows extension of urban facilities such as sewer service to the site.

Early in the statewide planning program creation process, those interested in recreation and economic development concluded that the exceptions process did not work well for siting new resorts. Resorts are seen as beneficial for tourism – an important industry in the state – because they attract visitors for longer stays (and therefore spend more money) and generate taxes with low demand for public services.

The Land Conservation and Development Commission and the Economic Development Commission appointed a joint subcommittee in the early 1980s to investigate potential opportunities and issues. Following the subcommittee's work, provisions for destination resorts were added to statute (ORS 197.435–467) and Goal 8, Recreational Needs, to provide for the approval of new destination resorts in exclusive farm use and forest zones, without an exception to Goal 3 or Goal 4.

Counties may avoid exceptions for resorts by mapping eligible areas based on criteria in statute and rule, and adopting zoning ordinance provisions that allow uses according to requirements and limitations in these laws. The state regulations are designed to ensure that developments are permitted only in areas that are compatible with farm and forest uses, adjacent uses, and important wildlife habitats.


Gordon Howard
Community Services Division Manager
Phone: 503-856-6935