In search of a happy ending for a story that should have gone much differently

Carla Axtman

Once upon a time in Oregon, we made decisions about the Urban Growth Boundaries in our state every five years using soil classification. We did it this way because Oregon has some of the best farmland in the world. This high value farmland stayed protected and conserved while allowing urban growth to take place in a way that minimized sprawl. But it also made it difficult for developers to make long term decisions about what they'd like to do.

So the Oregon Legislature conducted an experiment. They gave the three counties in the Metro region an opportunity to create a 50 year urban and rural reserves plan. A process was to be conducted to allow the counties a chance to draw the map, deciding on which land would be set for urbanization and which would remain rural for the next five decades.

The legislature failed to put rails around how local jurisdictions would manage the process. In hindsight, that was a very serious mistake. House Bill 4078, now in the legislature, may be the first catalyst toward fixing it.

Multnomah and Clackamas Counties conducted extensive public outreach, soliciting citizen involvement in an open process that actually considered the concerns and desires of residents. Washington County, on the other hand, basically tacked maps to a wall and invited residents to find out how the county and developers had planned to divvy up urban, rural and "undesignated" reserves.

Metro failed to rein in Washington County. Four years ago (almost to the day) I wrote about this failure and made note at the time that this was a mess. High value farmland in Washington County was being placed into urban reserves in large chunks, much higher than Metro's own advisory board was recommending. Still, the Council allowed it to go forward, ignoring the many voices from Washington County asking for things to be scaled back.

The Oregon Land Conservation and Development Commission also failed to scale back urban reserves. And so, the whole reserves map went to court because of a serious failure of leadership. The process remains bogged in the courts to this day.

Washington County, which has now even stopped pretending that developers don't own County Chair Andy Duyck lock, stock and barrel, has grown impatient. Thus is born HB 4078, a bill in the legislature intended to subvert the court process and codify the urban and rural reserves.

Except Washington County didn't count on one thing: the legislature has a history of pushing back on rogue counties that refuse to honor Oregon's land use process.

In 2011, legislators warned the players in this drama that they would need to fix the issues with the map or that there was a good chance that the legislature would go in and do it themselves. After all, it was the legislature that allowed this experiment in the first place. Citizen outcry continued to be loud and angry with Washington County and the other levels of government weren't responding.

Fast forward to 2014. The legislature decides to keep its promise.

That's exactly what's happening now with HB 4078. But now A deal is being sought by legislators, farmers and developers that would allow the less controversial pieces of urban reserves to move forward, while placing the very controversial Washington County tracts into rural reserves. Unsuprisingly, Washington County and Metro are having a serious temper tantrum over it.

In their arrogance, the conservative members of the Washington County Commission (Duyck, Bob Terry and Roy Rogers) have allowed to unravel the very thing they said they wanted: the ability for their developer friends to build a long term vision. Unfortunately, Metro and LCDC didn't push back and has left the legislature (or the courts, if the process was allowed to play out), no choice.

So what happens after this? The legislature has some options. They can tweak Senate Bill 1011, the law allowing for the urban and rural reserves. They can rescind the law and go back to the old UGB process. Or they can leave things as they are and hope that the local jurisdictions have learned their lesson.

Somehow I think that last option is probably not the one they'll choose.

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