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Error reignites Oregon rural dwelling debate

An error in a 2017 land use bill would allow more 'accessory dwelling units' on Oregon farmland, but lawmakers are being urged to correct the mistake this year.

CAPITAL BUREAU - An error in a 2017 land use bill would allow more "accessory dwelling units" on Oregon farmland, but lawmakers are being urged to correct the mistake this year.SALEM — An unintentional omission from an Oregon land use bill in 2017 has re-opened the debate over "accessory dwelling units" in rural areas this year.

Legislation aimed at easing Oregon's affordable housing crisis, Senate Bill 1051, was approved by lawmakers during the tail end of the previous legislative session.

Under one provision of that bill, ADUs — sometimes called "granny flats" — can be built in areas zoned for detached single-family dwellings in cities with more than 2,500 residents and counties with more than 15,000 residents.

That provision was only intended to apply within "urban growth boundaries," but that language was inadvertently dropped from the bill's text.

Unless the mistake is corrected, the bill would allow such dwellings in rural areas outside of cities.

Critics of ADUs in rural areas argue that increasing such housing would strain existing groundwater sources, septic tanks and rural roads.

Lawmakers are now being urged to pass House Bill 4034, which would correct the earlier "scrivener's error," by lobbyists from organizations that don't often agree on development issues: 1,000 Friends of Oregon, a conservation group, and the Oregon Home Builders Association.

The possibility of legislation aimed specifically at ADUs in rural areas is being discussed as part of a separate work group, said Jon Chandler, CEO of the OHBA, which usually advocates for relaxing land use restrictions.

While the problem would seem easily fixed, the situation is awkward because two lawmakers on the House Agriculture Committee — Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, and David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford — said they weren't aware the "urban growth boundary" provision was omitted accidentally.

During a Feb. 6 hearing before the committee, Witt said he supported the earlier legislation because he wanted to allow more accessory dwellings in rural areas and would be disappointed to see the provision changed.

"If you strike a deal, you ought to let us all know a deal has been struck," Witt said, referring to the urban growth boundary limitation.

Representatives of the Association of Oregon Counties and the Oregon Association of Realtors urged lawmakers not to restrict ADUs to cities.

Oregon is facing a housing crisis, so additional ADUs in rural areas would increase the housing supply without spending public money, said Mike Eliason, legislative director of AOR.

The law could be changed to allow counties to choose whether to allow ADUs in rural areas or to establish standards for their development, he said.

The committee's chair, Brian Clem, D-Salem, chastised these lobbyists for "poor judgment," noting they might someday be disadvantaged by an error in an otherwise "good faith" compromise.

Clem said that he disagrees with exploiting the error though he's not opposed to negotiating over ADUs in rural areas.

"I think it's absurd the tactic that you're using," he said.

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