Park County should look to Oregon on zoning

George Wuerthner — Guest Columnist
Friday, July 31, 2020
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In 1972 I drove down Paradise Valley en route to Gardiner, where I lived for most of the winter. I remember thinking it was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen and deserved the name “Paradise”.

However, I recall thinking that subdivisions were ruining the valley back then. What I saw in 1972 is a fraction of the housing tracts that cover the valley today. And if you were to go to the county offices, you would be shocked to see how much of the valley is already platted into small parcels waiting to be developed. Paradise is being lost one tract at a time.

Unrestricted subdivisions tend to cause more congestion, potentially more weeds, more wildlife habitat fragmentation, and increased need for social services like police, school busing, and other related costs of serving a sprawling population.

Conservation easements are one way to preclude development. But conservation easements are haphazard and don’t necessarily protect the most valuable lands.

What does work is systematic zoning. With proper planning, one can determine which lands are highly valuable for wildlife, watershed protection, scenic vista, or any other value. With zoning, you can also determine where new housing tracts would have the least impacts on wildlife and other people. And in this age of increasing wildfire—good zoning can reduce the costs of fire suppression by reducing rural sprawl.

An excellent example of state-wide zoning is found in Oregon. It is something that Park County might think about emulating. In Oregon, the only place you can build new housing tracts is the immediate margins of existing communities within what is known as the “urban growth boundary.” All other private lands are zoned for Agriculture and/or forestry.

Having lived in Oregon on and off since attending grad school, I have seen how well this system works. While living in Eugene, I frequently drove down the Willa-mette Valley at night between Portland and Eugene (where the U of Oregon is located). The overall impression I had of the valley was how dark it was. Even though 70% of the state’s population lives here, the spaces between major urban areas are almost more rural than Paradise Valley.

Why? State-wide zoning was initiated in 1972 by then-Republican Governor Tom McCall and a Republican legislature. All cities and even small towns the size of Clyde Park had to create an urban growth boundary where future development would be permitted and where it would be excluded.

The advantage of such planning is evident to anyone living in Oregon. Since you know where future growth will occur, you can plan roads to handle the traffic that will result. You know where you will need new schools and parks. You know where new industrial sites will be located. And you can protect landscapes that have unique value like exceptional wildlife habitat, wetlands, and ecological processes. You can expand your community to meet housing needs, but you can protect the rest of the lands.

There are benefits for Ag as well. Since lands outside of the urban growth boundary have no value for development, Ag land prices remain at a level where neighbors or even newcomers to farming can afford the cost. This keeps Ag more viable.

Park County would be wise to emulate Oregon and develop a zoning system that contains new growth immediately adjacent to towns. If we fail to do so, it does not take a prophet to see we will lose Paradise.