Aaron Nichols walked past rows of kale growing on his farm, his knee-high brown rubber boots speckled with some of the richest soil on earth, and gazed with concern toward fields in the distance. Just over the horizon loomed a gigantic building of the semiconductor chipmaker Intel.

For exactly 50 years, the farms and forests that ring Oregon's metropolitan centers have been protected from urban sprawl by the nation’s first statewide law that placed growth boundaries on cities. Cities cannot expand beyond those borders unless they make a request and justify it. Approval by cities and counties can take months or even a few years (larger expansions also need approval by the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development).

But now, a bill being considered in Oregon's Legislature could authorize the governor to unilaterally expand those boundaries as part of Oregon's quest to lure chip companies and provide land for them to build their factories. The measure would also provide $200 million in grants to chipmakers.

Farmers and conservationists are deeply worried about the proposal and what it will mean for a state that cherishes its open spaces.

“One of the reasons we bought our farm right here is that we knew that for 50 years we’d be farms, and everyone around us would be farms,” Nichols said. “And now we’re not so sure. Now it’s up to one decision by the governor. And that’s a scarier place to be.”

State officials and lawmakers, on the other hand, are eager to bring more semiconductor factories to Oregon while billions of dollars of federal funding to promote the industry is available.

They were stung by Intel's decision last year to build a massive $20 billion chipmaking complex in Ohio, and not in Oregon where suitable zoned land is scarce.

Oregon has its "Silicon Forest" — a counterpoint to California's Silicon Valley — and has been at the center of semiconductor research and production for decades. But Oregon is competing with other states to host multibillion-dollar microchip factories, called fabs. The competition heated up after Congress passed the CHIPS Act in 2022, providing $39 billion for companies constructing or expanding facilities that will manufacture semiconductors and those that will assemble, test and package the chips.

Dramatically expanding semiconductor design and manufacturing in Oregon would create tens of thousands of high-paying construction jobs and thousands of manufacturing and supply chain jobs, the Oregon Semiconductor Competitiveness Task Force, said in a report in August.

But the task force warned that Oregon needs more buildable industrial land near infrastructure, talented workers and specialized suppliers to attract and retain semiconductor businesses, and called for “urgent legislative attention.”

“This is about generational change," Democratic state Sen. Janeen Sollman, a chief sponsor of the bill, said during a recent tour of an HP Inc. campus in Corvallis, Oregon. "This is the opportunity that students will have for their future in going into these types of jobs.”Today, thanks to a former Republican governor, you can drive from many cities in Oregon and within minutes be in farm or ranch country, unlike many states where cities are surrounded by expanses of shopping centers and housing developments.

Tom McCall, who served as Oregon's governor from 1967 to 1975, had successfully championed protections for Oregon’s beaches to ensure they remained public. In 1973, he urged lawmakers to push for a tough new land-use law.

“Sagebrush subdivisions, coastal ‘condomania’ and the ravenous rampage of suburbia here in the Willamette Valley all threaten to mock Oregon’s status as an environmental model of this nation" McCall said in a speech before the Legislature in 1973.

The Legislature complied, passing a bill that established the nation's first statewide urban growth boundary policy.

Washington state and Tennessee followed Oregon’s lead. In 1982, a ballot measure called for a repeal in Oregon. McCall, who was dying of cancer, campaigned against it. Voters upheld Oregon's land-use system by rejecting the measure two months before McCall died.

Under Oregon's system, an urban growth boundary designates where a city expects to grow over the next 20 years. Once land is included in a UGB, it is eligible for annexation to a city. Those UGB lines are regularly expanded. From 2016 through 2021, 35 were approved, according to the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development.