(Photo | Courtesy of Bend Chamber of Commerce)
The potential for converting “non-prime” rural agricultural or forest land to more conventional housing uses, particularly in the affordable category, was one of the hot topics discussed in a wide-ranging annual “State of the County” address sponsored by the Bend Chamber of Commerce and held at 10 Barrel East Side Pub recently.
Deschutes County Commissioners Patty Adair, Tony DeBone and Phil Henderson also covered budget highlights, upcoming legislative priorities, the status of the 9-1-1 dispatch service coverage, the “sobering center” and the next steps in addressing future waste disposal.
Deschutes County provides government services to all unincorporated areas of the county for residents living anywhere outside of Sisters, Redmond, La Pine and Bend, and is responsible for land use, roads, Sheriff’s Office services, 9-1-1 and health services.
The jurisdiction is also responsible for elections, community justice and corrections, the County Fair, transfer stations and the landfill for the whole county.
“At Deschutes County, we are managing for growth as well as the excitement and tension that come with it,” said DeBone, who was elected in 2010 and lives in La Pine.
He said that in terms of transportation, there was a “movement from a maintenance mindset to undertaking new projects” set to benefit the overall system.
Over the next five years, $63.8 Million has been earmarked for capital project delivery via local, state and federal funding collaboration, covering priorities such as:
- Progress regarding the Highway Bend North Corridor re-route;
- The Terrebonne Refinement Plan to address congestion in that area;
- Tumalo US 20/Cook Ave.-OB Riley Road Intersection Improvements;
- “Six Corners” Intersection and U.S. 20: Ward Rd./Hamby Rd. improvements.
In the affordable housing realm Bend (via House Bill 4079) pilot projects included 185 multi-family affordable housing rental units (30-60 percent of Area Median Income), 137 multi-family sub-market rate rental units (81-120 percent AMI), 38 Single-family attached units for sale (81-120 percent AMI) and 25 Single-family attached units for sale (Above 120 percent AMI)
The Redmond HB 4079 Pilot Project also included 485 units with a density of 12.12 units/acre in a mixed use/mixed income context.
On the subject of affordable housing, DeBone said, “I am making a case right here that we should be talking about what to do with non-prime resource lands.
“In the 1970s, undeveloped private land was zoned Exclusive Farm Use (EFU) whether or not it was capable of being commercially farmed. In many cases poor soil conditions, lack of irrigation and climate conditions make profitable farming nearly impossible.
“Things have evolved a lot in the last 40 years or so, and we should be looking at how rural land can make a difference regarding housing needs.”
An example of how rural land could be deployed, included the prototypical Meadow Crest Acres Subdivision in the southern part of the county
In fact, the Deschutes County Planning Commission recently voted in a majority decision to recommend that the board of commissioners create a new zone to reclassify certain such non-prime farm or forest resource lands that may be deemed unsuitable for farming.
Exactly what that criteria entails, including that current designated wildlife habitat be protected, and how the approval process would unfold, has been tabled for further discussion, though the initiative is likely to face opposition from environmental activist groups such as Central Oregon Landwatch.
The Board of County Commissioners has already approved a zone change earlier this year of approximately 700 acres of land from Urban Area Reserve (UAR) and Surface Mining to a new “Westside Transect Zone.”
The new zone will include residential subdivisions that are required to have dedicated open space and resource management corridors with funded and enforceable provisions for the management of wildlife habitat and wildfire prevention mitigation plans.
Regarding 9-1-1, Adair outlined the steps that have been taken to stabilize and improve the service, including radio system upgrades, certified testing completion, the Overturf Butte tower likely to be fully installed by October this year, and the appointment of a new Director, Sara Crosswhite, who has 21 years of service with 9-1-1 and previously served as operations manager and dispatcher.
Adair said, “We are now operating at a much higher level, and I am personally delighted that such a dedicated professional as Sara has assumed the role of new director.”
She added that she hoped to see the new “stabilization and sober center” for mental health and crisis services open by early next year, which would play an important part in diverting people from the previous location at the county jail complex, with a focus on community safety
Henderson said that the county was planning for the future regarding solid waste, including widening recycling programs and looking at options for a potential new landfill site and the best direction to pursue, with the help of the Solid Waste Advisory Committee.
Fiscal year 2020 budget highlights included the County Bond Rating being elevated — from AA2 to AA1 — County tax rates remaining the same as FY 2019, an increase in assessed value resulting in a growth in property tax revenues, completion of the Crisis/Stabilization, increased investment in public safety five new positions in the Sheriff’s Office and six new positions in the District Attorney’s Office.
Adair observed that there was general disappointment among the commissioners that the state legislature did not give approval for an additional circuit court judge in the last budgetary cycle.
She added, “We desperately need a new judge. We haven’t hired one since 2004 and, for instance, Redmond has doubled in size since then. If we don’t get approval for one by February, I think we should sit on steps of the Capitol in protest!”
Regarding economic development, county initiatives included continued primary financial support to Economic Development for Central Oregon (EDCO), the Business Loan Fund, Bend Airport improvements, the Westside Transect, childcare and assisting with downtown Bend parking
Henderson added, “We are looking at opening up county parking lots to the public outside of business hours to help ease downtown congestion, especially during major events.
DeBone observed that locally the area was “transitioning to a more urban economy, with more diversity, especially in the hi-tech and biotech sectors”.
Upcoming legislative priorities included an additional Circuit Court Judge, accessory dwelling units, affordable housing population requirement removal, carbon reduction, Veterans Court, Oregon Forestland-Urban Interface Fire Protection legislation and State Police trooper staffing
Regarding the county fair, Henderson said, “We have one of the pre-eminent county fairs in the country, have paid off the original loan, and added 140 to the south for future expansion.”
Adair added, “We are looking forward to the 100th year celebration of our Deschutes County Fair this year. We are excited to welcome our new Fair and Expo Center director this year that comes to us with a pedigree of county fair experience.”
Katy Brooks, Bend Chamber CEO, said, “It seems Bend and Central Oregon are on a new Top Ten list every week and Deschutes County is right in the middle of the action experiencing the most rapid population growth in Oregon.
“Bend and Redmond have been consistently ranked among the best cities to start a business and our region is recognized as the remote worker capitol of the nation.
“Our economy is thriving, and we are one of the most successful business and revenue producers in the state. Not to mention our quality of life, access to outdoor recreation, and local world-class craft food and beverages.
“Our County is diverse across its 3,055 square miles yet shares some core challenges. We are urban and rural. We are tech businesses, service industry, production and agriculture. We have populations of people across all ages and economic means.
“And as different as we are throughout the county, we all face a housing crisis, childcare shortage, risk of wildfire, and rising costs of living and doing business here, with consequent continuing challenges to be addressed.”