Growth confab irks Metros critics
Even as Portlanders are being asked how the region should grow, many of the major decisions are all but made.
Metro, the regional government charged with managing growth, is actively seeking public comment on whether to expand the urban growth boundary, the state-mandated dividing line between developed and rural land.
Among other things, Metro is organizing a regional conference on growth issues March 15 at the Oregon Convention Center. It is being promoted as giving local residents an opportunity to shape the region's future.
But Metro officials, urban planners and local land-use activists all agree that the basic questions already have been answered: The region's population will continue to grow, and the boundary will be expanded to accommodate the growth.
More than that, the insiders agree that the greatest expansion will occur in the Damascus area of northern Clackamas County.
'That's the way I'd bet,' says Rod Park, a Metro councilor from East Multnomah County.
Metro will not officially vote on expanding the boundary for another 10 months. But Park says all the research to date supports expanding the boundary in the Damascus area. The population within the boundary is expected to increase by at least 200,000 people over the next two decades.
'That's the way the numbers are trending,' Park says.
In fact, two environmental advocacy groups Ñ 1000 Friends of Oregon and the Coalition for a Livable Future Ñ already are drawing up plans for a new city in the Damascus area. They are sponsoring a series of workshops to explore possible designs for new housing, shopping and employment developments in the area.
Local no-growth activists are appalled that so many decisions already have been made.
'The fix is in,' complains Andy Kerr, founder of Alternatives to Growth Oregon, a nonprofit organization that argues for zero-population growth.
Even though Kerr is scheduled to speak at Metro's regional conference, he doesn't see the point of it.
'I don't even know why they're bothering with it,' says Kerr, who plans to argue that Metro should discourage future population growth to preserve livability.
But Metro Executive Mike Burton insists that many important issues are still unresolved. Although he acknowledges that the Metro Council is leaning toward the Damascus expansion, Burton says other important questions remain, including whether to authorize smaller expansions in other parts of the region and how much land to set aside for preservation.
'People still have an opportunity to influence the decisions,' Burton says. 'The council wants to hear what kind of trade-offs people are willing to make to maintain livability.'
A cornerstone event
The March 15 conference is the largest event in a lengthy public outreach project launched by Metro early last year. The project Ñ called 'Let's Talk: Where Do We Grow From Here?' Ñ includes opinion surveys, focus groups and small 'coffee talk' discussions on the future of the region.
In addition to the conference, growth issues also will be discussed in a televised town hall meeting sponsored by KGW (8) and during a series of community workshops scheduled throughout the region March 16.
Burton says the outreach project is designed to help the elected Metro Council plan for the region's needs during the next 20 years. Metro's charter makes the regional government responsible for land-use planning issues.
The charter specifically says Metro shall plan how to accommodate population growth in the region while maintaining a desirable quality of life. Among other things, Metro must decide how to develop new communities and additions to existing urban areas and how natural resources shall be preserved for future generations.
As part of its planning powers, Metro is responsible for drawing the boundary that separates urban from rural lands. The boundary is required by state law to protect farm, timber and other natural lands from development.
Under the law, Metro must maintain a 20-year supply of buildable land within the boundary. The elected council must review population projections every five years and determine whether the boundary must be expanded to accommodate the expected growth.
Metro must make its next decision this December. The 'Let's Talk' project is part of the council's decision-making process.
Many different factors will influence the December decision. In addition to studying population projections and soliciting public opinion, Metro is trying to decide whether to protect local water sources by creating 'no-development' buffer zones along streams, creeks and other waterways. Every acre that Metro preserves must be subtracted from the land available for development, potentially increasing the need to expand the boundary.
State rules govern debate
It should not be surprising that such major decisions already are being made. Although the Metro Council is not scheduled to vote on expanding the growth boundary for more than nine months, land use planning is a complex process governed by numerous laws and rules. Lengthy studies must be completed and released before the final votes are taken, and preliminary decisions must be made before they can even begin.
More than that, Oregon land-use planning regulations are driving the focus on the Damascus area. The state Land Conservation and Development Commission has laid out a step-by-step process for expanding the growth boundary. It is based on the premise that farm and timber lands should be preserved.
Under commission regulations, Metro first must bring so-called 'exception' land into the boundary. This is land that is not zoned for either agriculture or logging.
Exception land is officially designated by county officials. Only three areas in the tri-county region have large concentrations of exception land.
One is the Damascus area, which is why Metro is looking there. According to Park, the two other areas have problems that probably will eliminate them from consideration.
The Beavercreek area is located in Clackamas County just east of Oregon City. However, Park notes, 'Transportation options are very limited in the Beavercreek area.' Beavercreek is only served by a single road, and there are no natural corridors for adding others.
The other area is the Stafford Basin just south of Lake Oswego. Metro has considered bringing it into the boundary for years. But, Park says, 'governance issues are a real problem in the Stafford area.' Local residents have vowed to fight such an expansion in court, potentially delaying the final decision for years.
That leaves the Damascus area as the only viable option.
'You can't ignore what's on the map,' Park says. 'If you're going to bet, there's a higher chance the Damascus area will meet state criteria.'
Damascus plans under way
At the same time, Park insists that the Damascus expansion 'is not a done deal.' He says that several obstacles need to be overcome, including the lack of a major highway to the area. Although several roads connect the area to Portland, none of them are large enough to carry all of the traffic that would be created by a new city.
The idea of building a multilane highway to the Damascus area has been discussed for years. It already has a nickname, the 'Sunrise Highway.' But the Oregon Transportation Commission has not yet agreed to fund such a project, which would cost millions of state and federal gas-tax dollars.
'The transportation link is one issue that has to be resolved,' Park says.
Despite such problems, plans already are under way for building a new city in the Damascus area. Two environmental organizations have launched a project called the Damascus Area Community Design Workshop to explore options for creating a new urban center in the area that would be brought within the boundary.
The groups are 1000 Friends of Oregon, which was created to defend the state's land-use planning laws, and the Coalition for a Livable Future, which also is concerned with affordable housing and social justice issues.
Karen Fox, a planner with 1000 Friends of Oregon, is quick to say that neither group is endorsing the Damascus expansion at this time, noting that Metro has yet to make a final decision.