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For Oregonians, pristine quality of life outweighs economic woes

Sometimes the quality of life outweighs the facts of life in Oregon. Toni Weaver, for one, loves the clean and safe small towns in Oregon. It's a good place to raise her two daughters, she says. But her town - the Boise Cascade company town of Valsetz - is being torn down, house by house, now that the plywood mill has been closed. Mrs. Weaver is sure there's no future in the Oregon lumber business for her husband, Dennis, but the prospect of better employment cannot entice get her to leave the state of Oregon. She likes it here.

Louis Perry, for another, reminisces: ''We were urban dwellers in Los Angeles.'' Only in Oregon could Mr. Perry, president of Standard Insurance Company, stand in a 17th-floor executive suite overlooking a metropolitan sprawl of more than 1 million people and suggest life isn't really ''urban'' in Portland. But Perry, an avid hiker, says that in less than 45 minutes he can be poking around the canyons of the Columbia River Gorge.

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Ask Oregonians to describe the mood of the state and they'll tell you that the ''pine cone effect'' is at work, that people are ''terminally mellow,'' that the bottom line here is the ''celebration of nature.''

It's an atmosphere Oregonians don't want to disrupt, and they're fiercely protective of it. For years, the state was notorious for its unofficial motto: ''Come and play, but don't stay.'' That saying was backed up by the state's strict land-use laws, developed in the early 1970s to control and direct the growth here.

Though the laws have been on the books nearly 10 years, the verdict is still out on this type of land control. The planning goals were instituted nearly a decade ago, but they haven't been installed completely. Some counties and cities are still developing local plans to comply with state law, and others are just in the first stages of implementing their plans.

Questions remain regarding what the law has accomplished. Some say the laws have had a chilling effect on the state's economy, especially during the recession, when business development was slow everywhere. They say it has lengthened the building-permit process.

Others claim it hasn't affected business. A Hewlett-Packard official says the climate of certainty offered by strict planning laws assures a company the environment will be conducive to business, and won't change.

''The program hasn't really been tested yet,'' suggests Katherine Keene, an urban planner and vice-president of the Associated Oregon Industries. She says the recession has prevented the growth that was anticipated when the laws were designed.

''Is it an art or a science to predict what will happen in the future?'' she asks, noting that the very nature of planning is being tested on Oregon turf.

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The land-use laws have become a sort of standard of the mood of this state, says Stafford Hansel, chairman of the Oregon Land Conservation and Development Commission. (The LCDC administers the state land-use laws.) Preserving Oregon's quality of life becomes ''less of a liberal-conservative battle than you would think,'' he observes. Bipartisan support has helped keep the laws intact during three referendum attempts, most recently at the height of the recession, when it was easy to blame hard times on ''anti-business'' land-use laws.

Meanwhile, there is an attempt on several fronts to woo business to Oregon. In Portland, for example, on the advice of consultants who say the city needs a powerful gimmick to overcome the state's ''anti-business'' image, the Chamber of Commerce is sending pin-striped roses to site selectors around the country. The idea is to show businesses the pluses of locating in this depressed state - as well as an eagerness to have them. And the emerging high technology business interests have pushed a 5 percent sales tax. The new tax is designed to spread the revenue burden more evenly and would reduce property taxes by 30 percent, freeze corporate taxes, and reduce personal income taxes. This is expected to make for a more hospitable business climate.

While industry may have to be convinced of Oregon's desirability, there is no lack of desire on the part of individuals who want to stay or move here.

The national recession shook Oregon's economy to the core, nearly leveling the lumber industry and leaving the state with double-digit unemployment and an uncertain economic base. But things don't look bad in Oregon. Certainly the unemployed lumberman experiences the same problems as the unemployed steelworker of the Northeast, but the bitterness and hungry look of the depressed cities in the Northeast aren't apparent here.

Recession does wear a different face here, agrees Toni Weaver. She attributes it to the state's livability and the encouraging attitude of fellow Oregonians.

''Oregon is a highly depressed area, and it's not coming back like other areas. I can't say it's easy, but the atmosphere and people here are different. Maybe we just cope better. . . . Here you have a lot of small supportive communities. Everyone knows each other, we take care of each other like we're all part of a family. It's not like a large city, where nobody knows you,'' she explains.

Though Oregonians give different reasons for staying in the state, the one common denominator for all is love of the land. In that sense, the state does seem to be giving something to everyone.

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