Netflix is advertising a documentary on the story of the Rajneeshee commune in Oregon. The trailer below makes it appear that the problem with the commune was religious intolerance on the part of rural Oregonians. In fact, the real problem was land-use intolerance on the part of urban Oregonians.
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was an Indian philosophy professor who decided to become a guru preaching free love and sex. The Indian government wasn’t too happy with his followers’ behavior, which included tax fraud and smuggling, so he decided to move to the United States. If they had moved to Texas, or Kansas, or some other interior state, land use would never have been a major issue.
Instead, in 1981, his group bought 64,000 acres in eastern Oregon with the intention of housing several thousand people on the land. But the land was outside of urban-growth boundaries, so they weren’t allowed to build on it, at least not homes for thousands of people.
They tried to incorporate as a city, Rajneeshpuram, and even sought support from 1000 Friends of Oregon, the state’s land-use watchdogs. As the strongest backer’s of the state’s land-use regulations, 1000 Friends told the Rajneeshees they would be welcome to settle in Oregon as long as it was inside of existing urban-growth boundaries.
The Rajneeshees’ response more than justified the Indian government’s wariness of the group. They tried to sway elections by busing in hoards of homeless people from California. They infected county commissioners with salmonella bacteria. They tried to assassinate a federal prosecutor and Oregon political leaders. They considered flying a bomb-filled plane into a county courthouse.
Okay, so they might not have been good neighbors even if they had decided to settle in Texas, Kansas, or some other state that doesn’t have intolerant land-use laws.
Before anyone knew about the Rajneeshees’ thuggish behavior, however, 1000 Friends began using them as a fund-raising tool, sending out numerous direct-mail fund appeals featuring photographs of Rajnesspuram and claiming it was a threat to the entire state of Oregon. At the time, the Antiplanner was working on other issues, but I found the xenophobic nature of the fund appeals repugnant and tossed them.
For 1000 Friends, however, this was a crucial test case, as urban-growth boundaries were still new in Oregon. If the Rajneeshees were allowed to create a new city, then anyone with a big chunk of rural land could do the same, rendering the state’s growth boundaries worthless. In short, the first volleys in the war were fired not by rednecked ruralites or sex-crazed cult leaders but by Portlanders who wanted to confine all newcomers to the 1-1/4 percent of the state’s land that was inside of a growth boundary.
The sex cult lost and the land-use cult won. Since 1980, Oregon’s rural population has declined 14 percent, or nearly 120,000 people. The state’s urban population has grown by 1.3 million, or 74 percent. While cities have slightly expanded their urban-growth boundaries, the 2010 census found that all of state’s urban areas still occupied less than 1.2 percent of the land. The massive growth of urban populations on the same urban footprint has made housing unaffordable and traffic more congested. While the Rajneeshee’s response to land-use regulation was wrong, on the issue of the regulation itself, they were in the right.