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January 22nd, 2014 NIGEL JAQUISS | News Stories
 

Busting the Boundary

Lawmakers look at the unprecedented step of voting on local land-use decisions.

news1_4012ILLUSTRATION: Becky Hawkins
Metro runs the Oregon Zoo, the Oregon Convention Center and directs solid waste disposal in the tri-county area. 

But in February, fed-up lawmakers will threaten the regional government’s primary reason to exist—its management of how and where the Portland region can grow.

Metro made its last decision to expand the region’s urban-growth boundary in 2011, shifting the lines in Washington County so developers could build factories, offices, stores, homes and schools on rural land. That decision can increase land values tenfold.

Metro’s 2011 boundary change triggered a dozen legal challenges in the Oregon Court of Appeals. It could take years to settle the questions.

The unprecedented move to wrest authority from Metro and the courts and put it in lawmakers’ hands is coming from Rep. John Davis (R-Wilsonville). He wants legislators in the February session to declare Metro’s 2011 decisions sufficient under state law, nullifying the legal challenges.

“Without spending a dollar, the state of Oregon can spur $400 million in economic development,” Davis said at an interim legislative hearing Jan. 16.

In Oregon, land-use planning is primarily a function of local government. But if Davis has his way, it could set a precedent trumping Metro’s decisions and allowing legislators from all of Oregon to shape Portland-area development patterns.

Davis says he got involved at the behest of the Beaverton School District, which desperately needs a new high school but can’t build it until the land-use fight is settled. (The Beaverton School Board was not involved in the drafting of Davis' bill, and the district has taken no position on it. Metro's code has established a specific process for public agencies to site facilities whose construction are time sensitive, so Beaverton could proceed with a new high school regardless of any leglslation.)

Davis also says he is hearing from developers, who have hundreds of new homes planned, and Washington County cities, which want the growth and tax revenues the urban-growth boundary expansion would bring.

“To save our land-use system you sometimes have to step in to make sure it works,” Davis says. “When it bogs down and doesn’t work, that’s where the public says let’s scrap the whole thing.”

Critics say allowing lawmakers either to approve or override Metro’s decisions would undermine the state’s land-use system. “That would be essentially declaring a baseball game over at the end of the eighth inning,” says Jason Miner, executive director of 1000 Friends of Oregon, a land-use advocacy group that is one of the appellants. 

State law requires Metro to evaluate the UGB every five years and make sure it includes a 20-year supply of developable land. In 2010, Metro focused that process on Washington County, especially in the Helvetia area, north of Sunset Highway.

In the past, Metro had simply declared which properties would be moved inside the growth boundary. But the previous processes had been so controversial, Metro in 2011 decided to change the rules. 

The agency divided lands into two new categories: “urban reserves” and “rural reserves.” Urban reserves would be eligible for inclusion in the growth boundary, but rural lands could be ineligible for decades. The agency then selected 1,985 acres—including the site where Beaverton wants a high school and prime farmland that conservationists want to protect— for inclusion in the growth boundary.

The idea was to simplify future growth-boundary decisions by limiting lands available for selection. But the approach seemed to satisfy no one.

So before the first shovel of dirt gets turned, the Oregon Court of Appeals says it must decide whether Metro’s creation of urban and rural reserves was legal—before it rules whether the agency properly expanded the boundary.

Rep. Davis, a lawyer, says he respects the Court of Appeals’ role but notes Metro is set to begin another urban-growth boundary process next year even as the 2011 decisions remain tied up in court.

Although Metro is a whipping boy for some Republicans, Davis says his concerns are practical, not ideological. He says Rep. Jeff Barker (D-Aloha) will co-sponsor his bill.

Plus, Davis says, his bill would simply ratify what Metro has done, not overturn it. “This is unique,” he says. “We would be validating their process and decision.”

The Metro Council has declined to take a position on Davis’ bill. But Metro Councilor Bob Stacey, a former 1000 Friends of Oregon executive director, takes a hard line.

Stacey argues once the Legislature starts meddling with Metro’s decisions, no local land-use decisions are safe from lawmakers. “It is entirely inappropriate for the Oregon Legislature to make a land-use decision,” Stacey tells WW. “That authority has been delegated to local governments.”

But Metro Council President Tom Hughes says current delays caused by the appeals are unacceptable. He understands developers, school districts and local governments want to move ahead with growth Metro has approved but are instead stuck “twiddling their thumbs while the region enjoys growth and a resurgence in the housing industry.”

Hughes says he’s open to a bill that speeds up the process. “It’s frustrating that once we’ve put in the monumental work as a region, the courts take 18 to 24 months to rule,” he says. “If the Legislature could do something about timing, that would be fine with us.”


 
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