Dozens of local business owners and city officials packed a large banquet room last week to hear a presentation from the Oregon Home Builders Association saying that “growth pays for itself” in anticipation of more attempts to get Oregon City voters to pass annexation measures.

In response to an audience member’s comment about the inevitability of this conclusion, OHBA Chief Executive Officer Dave Nielsen said that the national association anticipated criticism in putting out its Portland-area report last month.

“They wanted something that they could absolutely substantiate so that no matter what (numbers) they were pointing to, no one could poke holes in it,” Nielsen said.

Homebuilders estimated that building 100 single-family homes would generate a $3.5 million surplus for local government in the first year and nearly $500,000 in extra tax revenue for each year thereafter. Nielsen recommended that local governments put aside at least some of those funds to address traffic impacts of new residents.

City Commissioner Betty Mumm, recalling past failed annexation attempts, ridiculed critics for predicting that a “carmageddon” would result if Oregon City allowed such a development. Mumm said citizens should instead fear “going back to a dead Main Street” by voting against future annexations.

Blane Meier, president of the Oregon City Business Alliance, organized the Oct. 22 meeting at Highcliffe Restaurant as a “safe place” to discuss the potential of annexation in Oregon City without the politicization of any such measure currently on the ballot.

City Commissioner Carol Pauli lamented what she saw as a lack of build-ready sections of Oregon City for new homes. City voters, she argued, have backed themselves in a “double bind” by repeatedly voting down several measures that would have allowed annexation of buildable acreage.

“People don’t want density, but they’re also not voting for annexations,” she said.

Last year’s approval of smaller annexations and an improving economy regionally could make voters more sanguine about annexations.

Nielsen warned that “it’s taken a long time for demand to come back up,” saying that Oregon homebuilding is only at 44 percent of its 2002 construction level, up from 23 percent in the depth of the recession caused in part by a bursting housing bubble. Local homebuilders are thinking of 2002 as a “normal” year because construction levels in Oregon were so inflated in 2006.

If growth pays for itself, then why do governments request more from taxpayers? Former Mayor Dan Fowler blamed new regulations for rate hikes in the 1980s and ‘90 to pay for mandated separation of stormwater and sewer pipes.

“Government does a lot more than provide infrastructure and support services, and sometimes it gets caught up,” Nielsen said.

City Manager David Frasher argued the city has an “obligation” to manage growth, saying system-development charges pay for new growth’s share of governmental service costs, but existing residents should still be paying their share of costs affecting the whole city. He referred to his experience as a city administrator in Ashland, Wis., where he managed the adoption of an award-winning “smart growth” comprehensive plan.

“The idea of managing growth was a foreign concept in a couple of cities that I’ve worked in, and when I suggested methods we’re using here (in Oregon), I was suddenly labeled as anti-growth,” Frasher said.

With some of the highest development fees and an urban growth boundary, Oregon has a model for managing growth that’s nationally emulated. But Nielsen criticized Metro’s growth policies for pushing people and traffic to areas outside the urban growth boundary.

“Calling any kind of growth in this region ‘sprawl’ is an injustice,” he said.

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