Mitigation Program Renewal
Going into the session, one of the foremost priorities for local cities, including Bend and Redmond, was the extension of the Deschutes Mitigation Program. The system allows for new groundwater pumping that is critical for economic and residential development and any semblance of long-range planning in exchange for river flow restoration efforts in the irrigation depleted middle Deschutes River. The program, which was developed more than 10 years ago in response to evidence that groundwater pumping was depleting the wild and scenic lower Deschutes River has helped to free up groundwater for fast-growing cities while helping to more than quadruple the average amount of water in the middle Deschutes River downstream of Bend. The program was set to expire in 2013 and Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, made its renewal his top priority. After several months of meetings, hearings and horse trading, lawmakers announced they had struck a deal with municipal interests and environmental groups, including Bend-based Central Oregon Landwatch, that would extend the program to 2029 while creating existing oversight and reporting provisions. One of those provisions is designed to ensure that region protects its coldwater springs from pumping, something that wasn't required in the original mitigation program, said Jonathan Manton, a lobbyist who worked on the bill on behalf of Landwatch.
"Previously you could put your straw, so to speak, into the groundwater that was connected to a coldwater spring and then mitigate that impact by buying [water] credits in the middle Deschutes. It was robbing Peter to pay Paul," he said.
The bill also creates new monitoring and reporting standards for the Department of Water Resources, the agency responsible for overseeing Oregon's water laws.
Pine Forest Resort
Another bill sponsored by Gene Whisnant that drew the attention of environmental organizations, the Pine Forest legislation would have carved out a special exemption for a mass expansion of the Sunriver resort in southern Deschutes County. The proposal would have allowed roughly 1,000 new homes adjacent to the resort while letting developers ignore existing provisions related to the ratio of overnight (read hotel and other designated rental properties) accommodations to residences - one of the key differentiating factors between resorts and rural housing developments, which are otherwise prohibited under Oregon's anti-sprawl laws. After some legislative sleight of hand that included an attempt to change the bill's number and a late offer by supporters to put more upfront money toward south county's septic issues, the bill died in committee.
Industrial Land Fast Tracking
The tug of war between cities like Bend and state land-use cops didn't take any turns during the last legislative session, despite much loud complaining about the overly burdensome and time consuming task of planning for urban expansion. However, legislators succeeded in easing land-use restrictions for lands that are already designated for future industrial use, even when they lie outside city limits. SB 799 allows for a fast-track process that will be guided by a board that answers directly to the governor. The board will select between five and 15 sites statewide for possible fast tracking, which would include state dollars to help expedite studies and permit reviews. The legislation has the potential to benefit areas like Bend that have a shortage of large industrial lands within their current urban boundaries.
In the push to find any available revenue for the cash-strapped state, Oregon legislators mulled over the possibility of killing the state's business tax credit program. Known as Enterprise Zones, the tax credit program allows businesses to apply for a three-to-five year property tax exemption and is often cited as a key economic development tool. Ultimately legislators opted to extend the program to 2029. Several Central Oregonians, including Sen. Chris Telfer who carried the bill in the Senate, lobbied strongly in favor the law.
OSU Cascades Expansion
We couldn't help but see a little irony in the appointment of freshman legislator Jason Conger to the House education committee. After all, Conger was homeschooling his five children. However, Conger proved to a strong advocate for higher education in Central Oregon and made the purchase of a new building for the OSU-Cascades one of his top priorities for the session. Conger ultimately succeeded in the waning days of the legislature when lawmakers approved special bonding authority for the project by tapping into the state's lottery funding for economic development - a pool of dollars that Conger said was suitable for the project because Bend Research plans to co-locate a new research facility in the building.
"That was my number one priority for Central Oregon and to see that effort bear fruit made the adjournment all that much more sweet," Conger said.
In the end, the state is borrowing about $2 million to purchase the building. That money will be combined with another $800,000 that came from an anonymous donor and about $1 million from the college to complete the deal.