Planning For A Future: Protecting The Ground

by: Posted on: January 20, 2012

By Bob Emmons, President, LandWatch Lane County

Editor’s Note: We are privileged to have Emmons guide us through some of the history behind Oregon’s innovative and sensible land use policy, as well as the challenges it faces today. In this inspiring piece Emmons suggests a new philosophy to protect—among other things—the ground. This piece is an exclusive adaptation from the longer original version. The original can be found here.


Without the land use protections Senate Bill 100 established almost 40 years ago, Oregon long since would have gone the way of California and all the other states across the country providing open range to unbridled development. We owe what’s left of our system of locally-administered, state-regulated comprehensive plans and Urban Growth Boundaries to Governor Tom McCall’s legacy.

I say what’s left, because from its inception those whom McCall referred to as “the grasping wastrels of the land” have been crippling his land use program little by little, lot by lot.  The truth is that county codes and state statutes have always suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous manipulation by development interests and complicit land managers and politicians.

When I came to Eugene, Oregon 46 years ago, Tom McCall was governor and driving the beach public access and bottle deposit bills, the cleanup of the Willamette River and a comprehensive land use program that would protect the incomparable and vulnerable landscapes he loved. McCall was that rare leader who passionately walks the talk, who had the audacity not only to confront callous exploitation head on, but to prevail. I was proud to be an Oregonian.

At that time, just a few miles in any direction outside the heart of downtown Eugene would place you into farm and forestland, into wetlands and open space. Eugene’s population was about 54,000 and the University of Oregon about 8,000 when I was in graduate school. Now those populations have tripled, and farmlands and forestlands have grown malls and strip-malls, big box stores, sub-divisions, gated communities and estates, all of it dependent upon cheap oil and ready money for infrastructure.

Wildlife, as usual, have had to fend for themselves, somewhere out on the ever-receding periphery.

The state-mandated 20 year supply of buildable lands required of Oregon counties and municipalities codifies what planners, administrators and most politicians believe in principle: that growth is desirable and can be accommodated, and if not desirable then at least inevitable. Moreover, Lane County’s Land Management Division largely depends on building permit fees to fund long range planning, a clear conflict of interests.

But multiple signs—toxic soil, air and water, depleted water and oil supplies, global warming and stressed and strapped overpopulations, to name a few—have been telling us loudly and clearly for a long time that growth has not been good to us or our environment. Yet growth is not inevitable; it’s a matter of choice, a matter of policy. The buildable lands mandate, for instance, was not an edict from God but the political will of decision-makers; it can and must be eliminated by a more enlightened lot. Where possible and appropriate, overseers ought to shrink urban growth boundaries or, in lieu of that, create critical lands overlay zones to protect sensitive natural areas and resource lands on the urban fringe—land such as that east of River Road on the edge of Eugene where rich farmland important for food security is gradually succumbing to subdivisions.

The passage of Measure 49 in 2007, however, destroyed the foundation of land use planning in Oregon by conceding the public good of regulation of the commons to the self-serving “rights” of individuals: That property owners must be compensated to follow the law or the law must be eliminated or amended to accommodate the property owner.

Failure to recognize limits to growth on a finite planet feeds the same old paradigm that has made poisoned air, water and land a world-wide crisis—even as we continue to produce more of us to administer the doses. Until we get off the growth machine and expand our minds rather than our beltways, we’ll continue to chase our tails, digging a bigger hole for ourselves in the pursuit.

Oregon’s land use program, though woefully weakened by development interests over the 37 years of its existence, has maintained at least a semblance of the state’s integrity. But it is an outmoded growth management model overrun by demand and undermined by a backlash of private property rights zealotry.

To effectively address the population, climate and energy crises, state-regulated regional planning must be based on the natural limits of watersheds not the artificial boundaries of political jurisdictions. It must:

· Move energy and climate consequences to the forefront of land use planning.

· Evaluate, as a condition for approval, the carbon dioxide and energy consequences of development proposals.

· Eliminate suburban sprawl on farm and forestland.

· Foster the evolution of villages as seminal features of a steady state economy founded on a local food and local companies system.

Thinking and acting ecologically—responsibly and compassionately—clearly requires a paradigm shift in the way a majority of us live and work and think. We can start by holding—and cultivating—ground.

To do so, I believe, requires a language of the commons best served with all the passion, compassion and commitment to truth in story or narrative, the kind of tale Governor McCall was so fond of and good at telling. It’s time to update Tom McCall’s Oregon Story to meet the challenges of an overpopulated, exhausted and rebellious earth.


Robert Emmons, President

LandWatch Lane County

3 Responses to “Planning For A Future: Protecting The Ground”

  • Hey I followed from --how do youth bring this paradigm shift? I was in Eugene not too long ago for Power Shift West where one speaker was spot on when saying in order to preserve the only earth we have, we need to take on capitalism because of it's inherent implication for resources (maximum depletion). What are you suggesting Rob?
    by: Anonon: Wednesday 25th of January 2012
  • Emmons is experiencing some Internet difficulties right now. He will give his response sometime next week, when he regains Internet capabilities. Thanks for the great comment.
    by: Simon Davis-Cohen, Editoron: Thursday 26th of January 2012
  • Thanks for your response and for your attendance at Power Shift West. Sure enough, at its basest capitalism is a dog eat dog free-for-all and the devil take the hindmost. We're experiencing the inevitable fallout from this self-defeating system, and that's why the exposure and rebellion occurring in the Occupy movements are so critical. I'd like to believe that the Occupy effort will result in a change in the consciousness and perception of the general populace sufficient to produce a kinder, gentler system, one with at least a modicum of humility and responsibility. Toward that end heavy duty campaign contribution reform is essential. The rich get richer and corporations continue to dominate and destroy the natural and social landscapes because they've been given free reign to do so by the politicians they've bought. It's a vicious cycle that, like Dracula, manipulates by deception in the dark. Therefore, it's incumbent upon those of us who thrive in the light of common day to drive a stake through its heart by continuing relentlessly to get the word out and to teach by example. The road to recovery from bully capitalism is a country road not a superhighway. Responding to peak oil, depleted and polluted water and soils and global warming, the Economy must evolve into economies, all of them necessarily smaller, more cohesive, more communal and thereby more responsible, which is to say more ecologically sound. I have in mind local economies based on a local food production and distribution system and on local businesses, realizing the steady state economics espoused by Herman Daly and others. The problem and its solution are a matter of scale, which brings me to the main point of my PowerShift presentation. All of the above are but symptoms of the root cause: Too many homo sapiens for the planet to support. How do we correct that? Enough of us too many make our numbers and their impacts a strategic part of our conversation, our policies and our practices. And, not least, we serve by example. Enough or too much. Thanks for your interest. Robert Emmons
    by: Robert Emmonson: Friday 3rd of February 2012

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