Jobs or farms? Plans spur land fight

Business group, 1000 Friends spar over urban boundary
by: JAIME VALDEZ Jonathan Schlueter, executive director of the Westside Economic Alliance, says Metro is vastly underestimating the amount of new land needed for industrial growth. Environmentalists say just the opposite.

Politicians of all stripes like to say we can have both a strong economy and a healthy environment. Mayor Sam Adams, during his 2011 State of the City speech, claimed that Portland is achieving that goal.

'We're creating not only a city we love, but the city we ought to be - a home to cutting-edge innovation and culture, the most resilient and environmentally sustainable city and a place that offers all of its people the most equal of opportunities,' Adams told the City Club on Feb. 18.

But local business and environmental organizations aren't so sure. They constantly fight about proposals to encourage development or protect the environment. In the past year, business and environmental groups have split on developing part of the west end of Hayden Island. They also have battled over the first phase of the River Plan - an ambitious regulatory framework that's supposed to protect both jobs and the environment in the Portland Harbor area.

Now, business and environmental groups are sparring on whether Metro should expand the region's urban growth boundary for industrial development.

Metro, the elected regional government, is considering adding 310 acres of industrial land in Hillsboro for large-lot development. The proposal is included in a so-called 'capacity' ordinance approved by Metro in December that must be ratified by the Oregon Land Conservation and Development Commission. Both sides object to the ordinance for opposite reasons.

The Westside Economic Alliance, among others, believes the region needs more industrial land.

'Metro has significantly misjudged and underestimated future employment opportunities in the tri-county region,' says Jonathan Schlueter, executive director of the Westside Economic Alliance, which represents business interests in Washington and western Clackamas counties.

But the land-use watchdog 1000 Friends of Oregon argues that there is no such need.

'There is plenty of undeveloped industrial land within the UGB. We don't need to convert any more farmland for development,' says Mary Kyle McCurdy, a staff attorney and policy director for 1000 Friends.

The state Land Conservation and Development Commission is expected to consider the objections this fall.

Updating the boundary

Business and environmental groups in Oregon have been fighting about those issues for as long as anyone can remember. Since 1973, when the Legislature approved statewide land-use planning, many of the disputes have involved land use and development.

Oregon's system is supposed to protect farm and forest lands while also creating a predictable process for development of commercial, industrial and residential property. The program, administered by the Department of Land Conservation and Development and overseen by the commission, requires all cities and counties to adopt comprehensive plans to meet 19 statewide planning goals related to land use, employment, housing, transportation and the conservation of natural resources.

In the tri-county region, Metro has been given broad land-use planning powers, including the ability to set the urban growth boundary that determines where urban development can occur. The boundary must be updated every five years to assure there is always a 20-year supply of buildable land in the region.

The current fight on adding industrial acreage in Washington County is happening because Metro must decide whether and where to expand the boundary by the end of the year. As part of that process, former Metro Chief Operating Officer Michael Jordan released an urban growth report last year identifying a need for 200 to 1,500 more acres of industrial land in the region. Jordan only recommended an additional 310 acres, however - and that's the number the Metro council approved as part of the capacity ordinance in December.

Will manufacturing return?

Saying that amount of industrial land is much too low, the Westside Economic Alliance filed a formal objection with the Department of Land Conservation and Development in February. Among other things, the group argues that Jordan's report seriously underestimates the amount of manufacturing growth that will occur during the next 20 years.

Many manufacturing jobs were lost in this recession and Metro's report predicts the industries will continue to decline. The westside alliance argues that manufacturing jobs actually will increase substantially, citing as one piece of evidence the region's success at recruiting high-tech green employers such as SolarWorld.

'WEA believes these projections are unrealistically low, and unreasonably limit economic growth opportunities for our region and state at a time when we cannot afford to be timid,' according to the objection signed by Schlueter.

In its competing objection, 1000 Friends of Oregon argues that even 310 acres of new industrial land is too much. The group says there is enough unused or underused industrial land within the growth boundary for the next 20 years, even if the Westside alliance is right about manufacturing jobs increasing in the future.

In its objection, signed by McCurdy, the 1000 Friends group contended that 'even assuming the high growth scenario, there is no need for additional large lots over the next 20 years, and certainly not over the next five years.'

According to McCurdy's objection, the available land includes vacant buildings and adjacent small lots that can be assembled into larger parcels. The business groups, however, argue that there are no programs in place to clean up previously used properties or to aggregate small parcels into bigger ones.

The Department of Land Conservation and Development is reviewing the objections and will issue a report within the next six months. That report will be forwarded to the commission, which will either approve Metro's ordinance or send it back for more work.

Urban reserves also at issue

In this fight, both sides are supported by allies that help expand the conflicts beyond simplistic clashes between business and environmental interests. For example, the city of Hillsboro also has objected to the capacity ordinance on the grounds that it does not set aside enough new land for industrial developments. So has the Coalition for a Prosperous Region, which includes business, labor, construction and real estate groups in all three counties.

The 1000 Friends of Oregon group is supported by some area farmers and residents that want to preserve the rural nature of their properties. A number of them also belong to a newly formed advocacy organization, the Washington County Citizen Activist Network.

Many of the same parties are also weighing in on the question of where to establish 50-year urban and rural reserves. The 2007 Legislature approved the process to increase the predictability of land-use planning decisions in the tri-county area. Metro and the three counties have finalized their designations and forwarded them to the LCDC for approval.

McCurdy says 1000 Friends of Oregon has no objections to the thousands of designated urban and rural reserves in Multnomah and Clackamas counties. However, she says the organization is opposed to hundreds of acres recommended for urban and undesignated classifications in Washington County. During the final Metro hearing on the reserves on April 21, McCurdy raised the possibility of litigation if LCDC ratifies the Washington County designations.