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Bills would ease new dwellings on Oregon farmland

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Advocates of House bills 2937 and 2938 say the proposals would help mitigate the state's housing shortage without undermining protections for farmland.

SALEM — Two bills aimed at expanding affordable housing in rural Oregon would make it easier to build dwellings or permanently reside in recreational vehicles on farmland.

Advocates of House bills 2937 and 2938 say the proposals would help mitigate the state's housing shortage without undermining protections for farmland.

However, critics argue the bills would disrupt agricultural operations without having much impact on housing and could be counterproductive by encouraging short-term rentals.

"It's just not the best use of farmland," said Mary Anne Nash, public policy counsel for the Oregon Farm Bureau.

Proponents of the bills said lawmakers need to be creative in finding solutions to Oregon's housing problem.

There are limits to what can be accomplished with legislation focused on landlord-tenant relations, said Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, during a March 14 legislative hearing.

"It doesn't put new units in the mix," she said.

Oregon's land use system was intended to preserve farmland but not to create insufficent housing and perpetuate homelessness, Parrish said.

Meanwhile, HB 2937 and 2938 have restrictions that limit new dwellings and won't "upset the land use apple cart in any significant way," she said.

Under HB 2937, a single "accessory dwelling" can be sited within 100 feet of an existing home in a rural residential zone, or in a "exclusive farm use" zone with a county conditional use permit.

The same conditions apply to a single recreational vehicle used for "residential purposes" under HB 2938.

County governments can decide whether or not to incorporate these provisions into their land use plans and they're also free to place additional restrictions on accessory dwellings and recreational vehicles sited in farm zones, according to supporters.

"The opportunity to be bold is there. You're going to take political arrows either way," said Shawn Cleave, government affairs director for the Oregon Association of Realtors.

Critics of the proposals say that affordable housing is needed more near cities where residents have access to jobs, transportation and other services, rather than in remote rural areas.

More people living in the countryside also means strains will increase on local road and water systems, opponents said.

Neither bill requires housing to be provided at affordable rates or to residents with low incomes, said Mary Kyle McCurdy, deputy director of the 1,000 Friends of Oregon, a nonprofit that supports Oregon's land use system.

The proposals don't prohibit landowners from using the dwellings for short-term vacation rentals, which often crowd out long-term rentals, McCurdy said.

Even if the bills contained such provisions, they'd be difficult to enforce given the rural locations of the dwellings, she said.

The profitability of short-term rentals has caused them to proliferate in Hood River County, where farming is already challenging due to the small size of farm parcels, said Mike McCarthy, an orchardist in the county.

Farm practices are often incompatible with residential uses and growers must comply with federal restrictions that prohibit spraying pesticides near dwellings, McCarthy said.

"You're adding people into that zone," he said.