Property

Growing Oregon: When property owners fought back — and almost won

This summer, OPB launched a special project: Growing Oregon. It’s a deep dive into the history of Oregon’s unique approach to managing its land and the impact that the growth system has on all of our lives, every single day.

OPB senior political reporter Jeff Mapes has spent more than a year reporting, writing and producing this podcast and web series, and we encourage you to read and listen to the entire thing. But we also know you’re busy. So for each installment, we’ll offer a boiled-down version designed to make you feel a little smarter about why Oregon is the way it is and, we hope, whet your appetite to go deeper.

This week: When property owners fought back — and almost won

The eternal fight

Gov. Tom McCall and state Sen. Hector Macpherson were prominent leaders in the fight to create a unique system for fighting urban sprawl. But people were passionate on the other side as well. Oregonians love their land, but many of them don’t like being told what they can and can’t do with it.

Nykee and Dorothy English, when they lived in the Pendleton area, in approximately 1936.

Nykee and Dorothy English, when they lived in the Pendleton area, in approximately 1936.

Courtesy of Doug Sellers / OPB

From almost the moment Oregon lawmakers created the state’s growth rules, opponents were fighting it in court and via ballot measures. The biggest challenge came in the 2000s and featured an unlikely champion, a little old lady named Dorothy English.

English and her husband bought their land on a ridgetop in Multnomah County in 1953. They paid $4,500 for 40 acres that, as she described it, “had no water, no inside plumbing, an old house but we were used to hard work. We were poor. … So we rolled up our sleeves and started putting in the water system and getting ready to build a new house to live in, which we did.”

By the early 1970s, they were thinking about subdividing their land and selling some off. Then Oregon leaders passed statewide land controls.

Multnomah County repeatedly said no to English’s requests to divide her property.

The push to compensate

English’s legal fight coincided with the rise of a more conservative kind of Republican in Oregon, and with a renewed push by opponents of Oregon’s growth rules to help property owners.

A conservative group called Oregonians in Action focused its energy on promoting private property rights — and on rolling back a growth management system they thought had gone too far.

In many ways, Oregonians in Action saw itself as a counterweight to 1000 Friends of Oregon. That’s the watchdog group — which McCall was involved in after he left the governor’s office — that was so influential in shaping the system in its early years.

Oregonians in Action was cautious about using the initiative system. But in 2000, conservative tax activist Bill Sizemore put a property rights initiative on the ballot.

A long legal and political battle

Measure 7 called for relief for landowners whose property lost value because of government regulations. They’d either get money or they would get the right to ignore the law and develop their land.

Opponents of Measure 7 warned it could play havoc with the growth management system and lead to the renewed threat of sprawling development. But voters saw it as a matter of fairness. To the surprise of many, Measure 7 passed. But then the Oregon Supreme Court struck Measure 7 down.

Property rights activists came back with a similar initiative in 2004. Measure 37 didn’t try to amend the Oregon Constitution, but it also promised aggrieved property owners compensation or the right to build.

English, whose battles with regulators attracted increasing legislative and media attention, was the star of the campaign. And the measure easily passed.

Measure 37 gave property owners two years to file compensation claims. Plenty did — including large landowners who filed claims for large developments.

That led to a backlash. When Democrats took over the Legislature in 2007, they wrote their own ballot measure, Measure 49. It passed.

A new normal

Measure 49 allowed eligible property owners to get as many as three new homes on their land. In some cases, they could get up to 10. The measure also said landowners could get compensation for regulations passed after Jan. 1, 2007.

In the end, a lot of rural property owners did get homes they once could not. The state has now authorized more than 6,000 new homes under Measure 49, although many have not actually been built.

However, Measure 49 did not clarify things for one aggrieved landowner — Dorothy English. English filed a claim for $1.15 million on Dec. 2, 2004. She said that’s what she lost because she couldn’t divide her remaining 20 acres into eight homesites. She ended up in court with Multnomah County.

She died in 2008 at 95. Two years later, the Oregon Supreme Court ordered Multnomah County to pay her estate $1.15 million. Her lawyers got the same amount in legal fees and other expenses.

Next week: Oregon’s growth system succeeded in preserving open space outside of cities. But today’s fights, over climate change, homelessness and rising housing prices, are all about how we live inside them.

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