Advice for party-goers: If you’re hoping to enthrall acquaintances and potential dates, avoid the terms "urban-growth boundary or "transit-oriented development." While working recently on a story about Oregon’s land-use system, I was eager to share my findings at social occasions. Bad idea.

Few Oregonians understand how it works, and my attempts at conversation yielded polite nods. Even you, admit it, are tempted to put down this article and go do something more fun, like clean out the gutters. That’s too bad.

Oregon’s land-use system is unique and the envy of other states; it has managed to protect large tracts of farm and forest land and contain development within cities, avoiding the urban sprawl that has come to define the periphery of so many of the nation’s urban centers. That the majority of us who live here don’t understand how it works is a failure of public policy and threatens to be the program’s undoing.

It wasn’t always this way. The land-use system, created in the early 1970s, was born with strong public support and involvement. As California’s northern neighbor, Oregon got a preview of the suburban sprawl that would eventually afflict every Western state. Throughout the 1960s, Oregon grew like a teenager with bad acne. On the seacoast, developers lined up condominiums, high-rises and amusement parks.

East of the Cascades in sagebrush country, the land was rapidly being divided into four-acre ranchettes. Center stage for this suburban explosion was the Willamette Valley, where dairy farmers watched scattered homes creep closer and closer.

Oregonians saw the future and became determined to avoid it. So, it was with relative ease that the Legislature and then-Gov. Tom McCall created a new state agency, the Department of Land Conservation and Development. Yet the nascent agency didn’t decide how Oregon would grow in a back room. The department’s 10 staffers and a cadre of volunteers spent the next 15 months holding public meetings across the state. Their goal was to create a planning system that stemmed from the grassroots.

It worked. Ultimately, over 10,000 people attended, and residents inundated the state with thousands of letters and phone calls. Finally, the agency devised 10 broad goals to guide local planners in creating land-use plans. The goals included preserving farms and forests and building urban areas that would hum with efficiency. At the top of the list was citizen involvement. Arnold Cogan, the agency’s first director, remembers that, in the 1970s, over half the people in the state could have an informed conversation about land use. How times have changed.

The system, amended during every Legislative session since it passed in 1971, has grown cumbersome and complicated. If you want to build a carport, you have to tell the county about it and get a permit. If you want to develop on land that is zoned for agricultural or forest use, you must make a certain amount of money from the land or have a certain amount of acreage. Regulations are written in such complex terms that even those with a master’s degree in planning or a law degree often find them confusing. People complain the process takes forever and that regulations making geographic sense in the Willamette Valley are ridiculous in the sagebrush desert of eastern Oregon.

Furthermore, the nonprofit groups charged to promote and monitor the program, such as 1,000 Friends of Oregon and the Oregon chapter of the American Planning Association, have become as much a part of the entrenched establishment as the state agencies. They immediately become defensive when anyone dares to critique the system.

As one planner explains, "Sure the system isn’t perfect, but … I feel I’m defending an island of sanity in an insane world." After decades of battles won and lost, interest groups are now so attached to the status quo, they are understandably loath to reopen the public process.

Yet that is exactly what needs to happen. If Oregon wants its land-use system to last another 30 years, reform is essential. Aside from developing regional standards and streamlining the planning process, what’s most needed is a reinvigorated public.

While a coalition of academics, planners and agency staffers is looking into private funding for a public education and reform process, it is still at an early stage and remains short on specifics. But Oregonians owe it to ourselves to make land-use planning both fair and effective. Maybe then we can return to the creative era when people could say land-use planning system three times rapidly -- even at a cocktail party.

Rebecca Clarren is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.