Monday, March 8, 2010

The UGB hits middle age

One of the drawbacks of approaching 40 is an expanding gut. And as Oregon's land-use laws are of similar age, word comes of impending expansion around Portland's waistline.

The big news (not really news, as it wasn't unexpected) last week in Portland planning circles was the vote to expand the tri-county area's urban and rural reserves. In the 5-2 vote, the Metro Council voted to create the first urban and rural reserves. These reserves, new land designations which derive from a bill passed by the 2007 Oregon Legislature, are an attempt to clarify what land may be urbanized in the future, and what is excluded from potential urbanization. Land which is designated an urban reserve may be added to the UGB within the next 20 years; land which is designated as rural reserve will not be added for 50 years. 28,100 acres (44 square miles) have been designated as urban reserves, 272,100 acres (425 square miles) are now rural reserves. By comparison, the current urban growth boundary is 256,360 acres (400 square miles)--you all can do the math. A map of the additions (both urban and rural) is here.

This doesn't mean that all 28k acres WILL be added, of course--many tracts are highly controversial.

Prime Farmland

One of the stated goals of Oregon's land use laws are to protect prime agricultural lands. Agriculture generally requires large scale to function effectively--large contiguous tracts of fertile land under plow (or being grazed), along with the necessary infrastructure for farming. Many agricultural uses are incompatible with suburbia--people not involved in farming generally don't like to smell field burning, or fertilizer, or pig poop; listen to roosters crowing at dawn; or get stuck behind cattle drives or slow-moving tractors on the way to work. It's a generally accepted principle that once a farm is subdivided and turned into housing, its agricultural uses go to zero--even if some of the land could be recovered for farming, the necessary scale is disrupted, and there will be remaining neighbors who complain about the "new" operations. (People complain about noisy or smelly land uses that are pre-existing, after all...)

Several tracts designated "urban reserves", located in the Hillsboro/Cornelius area, are of this variety--in particular, a large tract located south of US 26 and east of Glencoe Road, and a smaller tract north of Cornelius. The Hillsboro tract is a logical extension of the existing industrial zone in Hillsboro. The Cornelius tract... is basically so Cornelius can expand its tax base. Or try to--the land in question may find it difficult to attract industrial users. (There's lots of existing industrial land within the UGB, but most of it seems to be considered undesirable by companies looking to set up shop. Plenty of industrial land in Oregon City, near the vicinity of Clackamas Community College, for instance--land which has been vacant for years).

Half-acre heaven

Two other large tracts which are now urban reserves are several tracts near Damascus and Boring; and the Stafford Basin. At first glance, these have little in common--one is a mixture of agricultural uses and pre-UGB housing developments; the other is known for its McMansions and swanky golf clubs. But both of these regions--along with much of the current city of Damascus, already within the UGB--have one thing in common: They're ultra-low-density sprawl, and they like it that way--residents of both areas want the gazillion new residents which the Portland metro area is expected to get--to pretty please, live somewhere else.

So far, both regions have managed to resist numerous attempts at densification. Damascus has been able to resist largely by incorporation, despite being on Metro's short list for expansion for some time now--a dirty secret of the whole regional planning process is that while Metro can limit a city's ability to expand its boundaries, especially beyond the UGB, it can't force a city to rezone if it doesn't wish to. As far as the Stafford Basin goes, the political and financial clout of the rich folk who live there have so far kept increased density out of the area--despite the fact that the basin is surrounded on three sides by urbanized areas, and I-205 passes through the middle of it. (That, and dysfunctional West Linn city government, largely caused by a political stalemate between pro- and anti- development interests).

The rest of the lot

Some areas make more sense. A big chunk of land west of Aloha (south of TV Highway and east of River Road) is already overrun with golf clubs and semiconductor plants, and is in close proximity to existing urban areas. Likewise with small tracts near PCC Rock Creek (which might see light rail in the future, if the high-capacity corridor plan is to be believed), and various chunks west of Murrayhill and on the western and southern slopes of Bull Mountain. (Memo to developers and planners--leave a ROW for light rail here if you start building...) Also, some parcels in Oregon City do make sense--although why the Newell Creek Canyon (a greenspace) is designated as urban reserve is beyond me.

Bottom line

There's a lot of land in the urban reserves that probably shouldn't be developed, but probably will be--and quite a few places that should be densified (due to existing residential use), but won't be. And there are few places where development may well be both welcome and useful. Of course, a key issue in determining the success of future development is what sort of development it is--more acres of exclusive-use residential are not what the region needs. And any expansion of the urban growth boundary itself ought to be contingent on actual demonstrated need, not projections.


Regarding, the city of Damascus--in a special election held yesterday in the city, four anti-growth measures (including on purporting to ban light rail, and severely restrict other forms of public transit), all went down to defeat, albeit by narrow margins. (Hat tip to Al...)

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