Oregon’s Land Use Laws Should Embrace Solar Energy

It’s no secret that Oregon’s natural beauty is one of its greatest treasures. In 2016, Thrillist named Oregon the seventh most beautiful state in the country – a ranking that should come as no surprise to most Oregonians. Our remarkable rivers, forests, and agricultural lands have flourished thanks to the Land Conservation and Development Act of 1973, often referred to as Senate Bill 100. This legislation instituted a land use plan focused on balancing economic development with meaningful conservation. It created the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development and empowered the agency to develop statewide planning goals that prioritize citizen involvement, housing, energy conservation, and a slew of other key considerations.

One example of how this legislation has shaped our land use is through the urban growth boundary – the land use planning line that prevents unfettered urban expansion into wilderness and agricultural land. While reasonable minds may differ as to the tradeoffs involved, one cannot disagree that SB 100 has preserved Oregon wilderness and helped the state’s agricultural industry flourish.

Times change, however, and it may be time to reconsider what types of development are allowed on agricultural land. Recently, a solar energy developer attempted to place an 80-acre solar energy facility on agricultural land in Jackson County, Oregon. One argument made by the developer was that one of Oregon’s state land use guidelines, Goal 13, should allow renewable energy projects to be sited on agricultural land because Goal 13 states that land should be “managed and controlled as to as to maximize the conservation of all forms of energy.”

However, the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals disagreed with this expansive interpretation of Goal 13, as did the Oregon Court of Appeals. In their opinion, the court wrote “Neither the text of the goal nor its guidelines ‘require’ the county to develop or facilitate the development of any particular land use, much less large solar power generation facilities. Instead, Goal 13 requires that all development on land be ‘managed and controlled’ to conserve energy.” Understandably, the court’s opinion focused on the letter of the law, but as climate change and increasing drought emphasize the need to invest in renewable, non-carbon energy sources, it may be valuable for the Legislature to take a more open-minded approach to allowing renewable energy production on land zoned for agricultural use.

Mick Harris is a summer associate at Tonkon Torp and a student at Willamette University College of Law.