Dear Metro: Leave the Urban Growth Boundary as is

Carla Axtman

Every four years, the good folks at Metro examine the needs of the region and decide whether or not to expand the region's Urban Growth Boundary (UGB). Tomorrow, they'll decide where the UGB will sit for the next four years. And yes, that means that this blog post is chock full of wonky land use goodness. So refill your coffee cup and make your bathroom trip now. You might even put your cell phone on "vibrate", just to avoid the distraction. Once you dig in to this, you're going to want to get to the end in one, concentrated swoop. Afterward, you're going to want to contact your Metro Councilor to let them know you don't support a UGB expansion. Trust me.

There's a lot for Metro to consider: housing, large lot industrial needs, commercial real estate needs, transportation infrastructure and water use/availability, to name a few. I've had more than one Metro Councilor tell me that issues around land use are the only topic where they are significantly lobbied, especially by powerful and monied interests.

As one who very lives very near the UGB in Washington County and seen the way these decisions impact the community, I've witnessed firsthand how developer's interests hold sway with County decision makers when it comes to land use. It is my sincere hope that Metro chooses to weigh those interests less generously and puts the interests of those who live in these places more seriously than does Washington County. We are, after all, the people that vote them in (or out) of office.

First of all, Metro staff have been excellent on this issue, as far as I'm concerned. They've worked hard to be thoughtful and comprehensive in their analysis of the needs of the region. Kudos to them.

There's a lot of pressure on Metro to expand the UGB based on two basic premises:

  1. The region requires up to 26,000 new homes to keep up with population needs.

  2. The region requires 300 additional acres of flat farm land for large industrial.

Both of these premises are based on information that is demonstrably outdated.

We're growing but not as fast as Metro's 2009 Urban Growth Report prognosticated. Thus the number of housing units needed to accommodate the slower population growth should be adjusted accordingly--which will fit nicely into the lower third of Metro's forecast, rather than the middle to upper third, which is being used to justify expansion.

Then there's the matter of the way housing is changing, along with our region's very large supply of existing homes. Since 1979, the UGB expansions make up about 11% of the UGB in land area, which is about 28,000 acres. But 95% of all permitted new dwellings have been built inside the 1979 UGB. The 5% of residential development located in the post-1979 UGB expansion areas has almost been single family dwellings (see pages 104-105). For the region at large, single family housing is generally decreasing both in construction and preference relative to multi-family. I'm also hearing from real estate folks that average lot size is decreasing as well.

In addition, Oregon's foreclosure situation mirrors what's been happening nationally. Foreclosure notices in our state rose 19% from July to August of 2011. For every 621 homes, Oregon has one in the process of foreclosure.

Seems like we're already in a glut with housing and not looking to get out of it soon, unless there's a big economic turnaround.

The second premise is the need for large lot industrial expansion. Metro's draft resolution suggests a UGB expansion of 330 acres for large lot industrial. Some of the cities and land development interests are asking for more than this. But I'm having trouble seeing how they're reaching these numbers, based on the data.

Using Metro's own material, here's how things shake out: In 2006, the region had 56 large, private sector employers, 37 of whom were located in Portland. The majority of these businesses started out small and grew over time. From 1960-2006, 9 large employers came from other places to relocate to the region. They're still here. This figures out to an average of less than two large employers per decade coming here from the outside. Historically, we simply haven't had the kind of demand that the cities and developers are asking to be met.

Figure in to this the fact that some of these large employers don't require large lot industrial for their businesses. Currently, there are 60 businesses in the metro region located on lots that are more than 25 acres in size (considered "large lot"). These businesses make up merely 8.1% of the total employees in the region. Subtract institutional employers, which basically means all of the regional medical centers, it drops to 5.7% (see pg 12). Further, Metro's 2009 Urban Growth Report notes that these industrial employers tend to locate near where people live. They're more likely to place themselves in existing areas of housing on smaller lots in order for residents to access services.

And just like with housing, we've got a glut of large lots already. According to Metro's data, 53 large lots with a Title 4 designation were added to the UGB between 2002-2009. Guess how many have been developed? One. Genentech in Hillsboro. That's it. Even though there are concept plans completed for most of the past UGB expansions, this is all they've managed.

In addition, there are currently 13 very large lots (over 50 acres each) inside the UGB. Some of them are over 100 acres, without lot assembly (pulling multiple smaller lots together into one large lot). Factor in some lot assembly and you can get 19 more sites, already inside the Urban Growth Boundary. (see Appendix 4, Metro's Urban Growth Report) And while its true that businesses such as Intel, Solar World and Genentech often hold onto large lot land for potential expansion, it seems that little has been done on the part of developers and cities to show that as part of any serious calculus for justifying expansion. Metro should be asking them quite forcefully to "show their work" on the math for this.

Finally, as I've noted before, the region has a bounty of existing vacant and underused buildings. In blogger parlance, a "metric crap ton". In fact, every solar company that located here by 2010 took up residence inside an existing UGB, six in existing buildings. SoloPower (setting up shop in 2011) is locating in an existing building in the Port area.

With all these expansions comes the need for taxpayers to foot the bill for the needed infrastructure as well. Given all the existing land and the lack of real need for expansion, the responsible and appropriate thing for Metro to do is to keep the UGB where it is.

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    Thanks for this great analysis, Carla. I hope Metro councilors read it.

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    Right on, Carla! Let's hope that Hillsboro/Wash.Co. boosterism does not prevail at Metro over simple good sense. Times have changed since the deveelopers' "gotta expand onto farmland so we can have jobs" mantra had contact with reality. This is 2011, not 1991 (or 1961, for that matter.)

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    If population growth is slowing will that dull the drive by some to make us all live in shoeboxes with no yards?

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      If you look at Metro's data, the preference of people in the region in general is moving away from single family dwellings. I would presume that Metro would work to accommodate those preferences.

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      That's a remarkably data-free bit of hyperbole in response to an in-depth analysis with citations.

      If you want to start talking city densities, or percentage of homes with yards, or average square feet of home, or the split among housing types, and how that matches up with preferences indicated by the market and by polling, please do.

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    I think the best reason for not moving the UGB is all over Washington County - Rows and rows of endless (ugly) tract housing, all sitting empty. Meanwhile, rents keep raising. And yet, Beaverton has yet to get a single building over four stories.

    If we are after denser development, then let's start providing some reasons for developers to start building upward. Less highways and strip malls, more neighborhoods with shopping, living, and employment all withing WALKING distance.

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    Thanks for the informative post Carla!

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    I hope people are as vocal in supporting development inside the UGB as they are in opposing development outside of it. Too often I see high density projects in Portland sidelined by neighborhood opposition where there is no pro-development argument from the left. I’m not saying every project should go forward or that opposition is always invalid, but there are real costs to forestalling urban development in lost tax revenue, lost economic opportunity and the pressure to build outside of urban areas. That side rarely gets heard in the public discussion.

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    Carla, where do you find evidence of a preference for multifamily residences (which i can only assume means condos, apartments, or duplexes)?

    The report linked in this sentence

    "For the region at large, single family housing is generally decreasing both in construction and preference relative to multi-family"

    doesn't show it. This is an investment report showing that there is more upside profit potential in apartments and multi-family dwellings because of stagnant incomes.

    And you refer to "Metro data" in your responses but where is it?

    Keep in mind that we are in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and fixing in place decades of land use based on the last few years of consumer decisions would be pretty short sighted.

    This isn't an argument for or against the UGB, just a note that the last few years have been very unusual by any measure and we have really no idea what the next decade of economic growth will look like.

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      Given that we revisit the UGB expansion every 4 years, it seems highly unlikely that we will tie our hands for an economic recovery should we not expand the UGB presently. The glut of land and already existing square footage indicates that there are a myriad of opportunities both for housing and large lot industrial. For example, the City of Cornelius has 60 acres of land brought into the UGB four years ago that has yet to be developed. Yet they're asking for more to be brought in immediately. It makes little sense.

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