Urban and rural reserves battle may have barely begun.

Carla Axtman

Later this week, Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington Counties along with Metro will vote on a 50 year plan to set aside land for potential urbanization in the region.

The process has often been contentious and difficult, pitting farmers, conservationists and local food advocates against big development interests. Washington County has seen a surge of local activism on the matter, with hundreds of locals turning out to public meetings--often with overwhelming testimony against large expansion of urban reserves.

Especially in Washington County, the public accessibility to the process has seemed problematic. A number of meetings, especially later after the mapping started to solidify, allowed public testimony. But many of the open meetings did not, leaving a lot of citizen frustration. Further, Washington County's committee that made the original recommendations to Metro had very thin representation for farming interests and none for conservation or citizen interests, skewing the urban reserve recommendations to the very large side.

On Friday, Metro Council Kathryn Harrington (who represents much of Washington County) sent a broadcast email indicating that the final proposals were out and the process is wrapping up:

On behalf of the Metro Council, I am pleased to report that Metro and Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties have produced final proposals for urban and rural reserves that will shape how our region grows for up to 45 years.

This is one of the most important and challenging decisions our region has faced. The proposed designation of more than 271,500 acres of rural reserves will guarantee the protection of valuable farmland, forestland and natural areas for current and future generations to enjoy. Urban reserves, which would amount to about 28,100 acres across the region, will provide for the future opportunity to create good jobs and housing in safe and pleasant neighborhoods that complement existing communities.

The proposals are the result of unprecedented partnerships and participation from local governments, advocacy organizations and thousands of residents. They represent a collaborative road map that no other region in the United States has achieved.

That last paragraph rubbed many local Washington County activists the wrong way. Cherry Amabisca of Save Helvetia both told me that Harrington's email was off-putting and a number of the urban reserve designations are still under discussion. Brian Beinlich (also of Save Helvetia) said that he believes Harrington's email was "premature". Former Washington County Commissioner and local activist Linda Peters was frustrated, saying that the current map is an "invitation to sprawl".

Amabisca seemed especially unhappy with Harrington. "28,000 acres of urban reserves is way more than Metro COO recommended, as well as the state agencies and MPAC and the Ag/natural resource coalition. Her original message to us when we were upset about the Hosticka/Bragdon map (which had 27,000 acres of urban reserves) was that this was just a starting point and her intent was to bargain down. THAT certainly didn't happen!"

Amabsica also included a summary of why Save Helvetia believes Washington County needs far less land than is being requested for urban reserves.

For her part, Harrington was firm in her conviction that Metro had reduced the urban reserves acreage down. "All through these months there have been proposals and scenarios. We've pushed that envelope. The area around Cornelius has been pushed down since the January proposal staying well south and away from Dairy Creek and there is rural reserve around Cornelius-Shefflin Road." Harrington says she knows some people are unhappy with the proposal. "I can appreciate that there are folks who are concerned about the area north of Council Creek. But this is the best proposal we can come up with. Compromises were made all around the region. We've had to come up with a solution that balances multiple perspectives."

The entire process for designating urban and rural reserves has been two years, following the legislature's passing of Senate Bill 1011, which put the system together. I was surprised to learn about what took place at the Metro Policy Advisory Committee (MPAC) meetings which made recommendations to Metro. Several sources in attendance described the January 27 and February 1 meetings as intense and fraught with discussion and votes from people who had no idea about some of the parcels in question. And Metro doesn't appear to have given the MPAC recommendations much weight. Interestingly however, virtually every place in which the final mapping and MPAC don't match up has MPAC with greater rural reserves and the final map with greater urban reserves.

Even if Metro passed the current map, there is a long way to go. The map will next go to the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development (LCDC). As I understand it, LCDC has what amounts to line-item veto powers over the map. They can choose to pick it apart and make substantive changes, or they can leave it as it is.

In addition, the Oregon Legislature may decide to take action. Representative Brian Clem (D-Salem) seems ready to take the lead if the current map goes forward as is. Clem said that there are essentially three options he'll consider:

1. The legislature passes restrictions on the portions of the map set aside as "undesignated". Some of the concern by farmers and conservation groups has to do with what happens to that undesignated land--and whether or not it will be gobbled up as urban. This would also include some tinkering with the map.

2. The entire map becomes subject to legislative revision.

3. The legislature repeals Senate Bill 1011, forcing the three counties to go back to the old way: revisiting the Urban Growth Boundary every five years and restrictions based on soil quality.

Clem cited serious problems for farmers when land they lease is put into urban reserves. Clem said one farmer that he spoke with was farming on leased land adjacent to the farmer's property. The farmer had already received notice from the landowner, warning him to only plant annual crops because the land was going into urban reserves. Other farmers have expressed concern about an unwillingness on the part of banks to do long term loans with farmers whose land is designated as urban reserves.

Clem said, "I probably could have passed a bill during the special session. Citizens and groups from across the spectrum have been complaining about this, including builders, conservation groups and farmers. All options are on the table given how upset the farm and conservation people are."

There is also the possibility that the map will be challenged in court, but I suspect that is a last resort.

The three counties are expected to vote this week on their individual county Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) that designates their urban and rural reserves, which will then go to Metro. Metro is scheduled to vote on them Thursday afternoon.

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