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Lion sanctuary was a missed opportunity

Even the king of beasts was no match for Oregon's land-use restrictions.

A Southern California couple who had hoped to support their sanctuary for lions retired from the film industry by charging the public to visit the animals wound up taking their wards back to California after a Jackson County hearings officer ruled against them. The Walking with Lions sanctuary near Phoenix is on exclusive farm use land.

In general, Oregon's laws are designed to preserve agricultural land by restricting its use, and in general that's a good thing. It has prevented the kind of sprawl that has affected rural farm land in many other states.

In practice, however, sometimes the one-size-fits-all approach means too much restriction.

Using rural land to house lions doesn't seem to conflict with the intent of the law, but even the best-drafted laws cannot foresee every wrinkle. In this case, Vicki McMillan and her husband, animal trainer Brian McMillan, hoped to help pay for their lions' expensive upkeep by charging the public to view and interact with the animals.

State law allows commercial ventures on farm land if they relate to the food and animals raised there. Think tasting rooms and event spaces on vineard land.

The McMillans' plans would have been allowed if the lions were cows, sheep, horses or any other species listed as farm animals in the law. But they're not.

It's unfortunate that the county could not find a way to make the lion sanctuary fit within the rules. In a local economy increasingly turning to tourism, the sanctuary would have been yet another attraction to entice people to visit Southern Oregon and perhaps to stay longer once they were here.

Vicki McMillan says she doesn't blame the county for ruling against the operation. The problem, she correctly points out, is with the state law.

Fixing that problem doesn't necessarily mean writing an exemption for a sanctuary for retired movie lions, or every conceivable exotic species that someone might want to house on EFU land. But some flexibility could be added so uses that are generally compatible with rural farms and ranches but need some paying visitors to survive could be accommodated.

Failing to provide that modest flexibility only adds to the view that the state's land use system is out of touch, and adds to rural Oregonians' difficulties in creating strong communities.