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Dec 7, 6:14 PM EST

Central Oregon zoning pits mule deer against churches


BEND, Ore. (AP) -- A rural central Oregon county is wading into a long-running zoning debate that pits mule deer against churches.

A portion of Deschutes County is zoned to protect the county's shrinking mule deer population during the lean winter months. The zoning currently prohibits churches as a use on those lands, The Bulletin reported Thursday.

Pastor John Shepherd has been operating a church out of his home since 1999 and conducting outdoor weddings, but three years ago the county told him he was in violation of the zoning code. In 2016, the Land Use Board of Appeals overturned a permit for Shepherd's church on the basis that the county's code explicitly prohibits churches there.

Since then, Shepherd has turned his attention to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000. Shepherd believes the county's code represents a clear violation of the law, which is designed to protect houses of worship from discrimination by local governments.

Environmental groups argued earlier this year that Shepherd's venue was not a church, but a for-profit event company that doesn't own any land within the zone.

Large church gatherings are prohibited on the land for the same reason as schools, golf ranges, kennels and other uses: Noise, traffic and activity can spook mule deer that forage there in winter. Mule deer numbers have been declining since the 1970s as development encroached on their traditional winter range, according to comments submitted by Central Oregon Landwatch, which opposes zoning changes.

During the deliberation, Deschutes County Planning Manager Peter Gutowsky presented the commissioners with five options, ranging from leaving county code as it is, to striking the word "church" from the list of prohibited uses and allowing churches in the wildlife zone even during the winter, when the deer use the range.

The three commissioners expressed their desire for churches not to be singled out as a prohibited use.

Commissioner Tammy Baney said she wanted to see a compromise that allows small Bible studies and other gatherings in the zone, while providing a backstop against large events during the winter. Shepherd is open to a compromise, he said, and currently doesn't plan to sue.

County staff will prepare a draft of an amendment to the zoning rules following board's guidance and it will be reviewed by the commission on Dec. 18.

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Information from: The Bulletin, http://www.bendbulletin.com

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