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Inspiring to see bipartisanship in Legislature's land use bill

In an era when government is often gridlocked and acrimony is intense, it is reassuring to see an example of our checks and balances system in Oregon work on an issue that is highly divisive — land use planning.

When the Oregon Court of Appeals overturned Metro’s 50-year growth plan, accusing Washington County of using “pseudo factors” to determine urban/rural reserves, the stage was set for a train wreck that could have taken years to unravel.

Local governments are creatures of legislatures. The powers a legislature delegates to local governments can be taken away. The rigging of urban/rural reserve boundaries in Washington County forced the hands of the Appeals Court, and ultimately the Legislature.

The primary culprit was the board of commissioners in Washington County, headed by Andy Duyck. But the pro-developer mobilization began with former Chairman Tom Brian, who got Metro to cave in to a slice and dice land swap process circumventing citizen input.

In an act of unbridled hubris, the Washington County Board of Commissioners included the Helvetia area within the urban reserves. This ignited a legal battle ending before the Oregon Court of Appeals.

What angered opponents was inclusion of prime farmland north of the Sunset Highway in the urban growth boundary and a process that violated the principle of Goal I — citizen participation, guaranteed in the originating act of Oregon’s land use system, Senate Bill 100.

The Legislature created the urban and rural reserves designation in 2007. The Oregon Appeals Court threw out the specific designations of rural and urban reserves in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties.

The court remanded the issue back to Metro and the three metro area counties. The court’s action created a potential paralysis of land use planning in the metro area years in the making. It could have taken four to six years to redraw the UGB map.

Housing and industrial development in the metro area would have stopped, throwing people out of work and derailing a recovering economy.

Into this breach stepped the Oregon Legislature under the leadership of Representative Brian Clem (D-Salem), chair of the House Rural Communities Committee that was working on HB 4078. The initial draft, an expedited land use bill, met stiff opposition from many groups — from Metro to 1000 Friends of Oregon.

Clem then stepped in, working with state Rep. John Davis (R-Wilsonville) and Ben Unger (D-Hillsboro), vetting a modified reserve plan to avoid another messy debate. To buy time to draft a consensus bill, they shipped HB 4078 to the House Rules Committee.

The modified HB 4078 bill removed prime farmland in the Helvetia area from the urban reserves, while opening up around 2,000 acres in South Cooper Mountain and South Hillsboro for future development. These were the keys to unlocking the gridlock.

The timing of a new map for urban/rural reserves was the key, coming days after the Appeals Court ruling. The Legislature’s intervention pre-empted the legal wrangling that has bogged down this process since metro area governments approved the original plan in 2010.

In meetings in Salem and Hillsboro with key stakeholders from all sides, Clem got consensus on the “grand bargain.” But would it hold firm over several days of behind the scenes negotiating and 19 drafts of the bill?

That consensus held firm in the House Rules Committee chaired by Rep. Val Hoyle (D-Eugene) who, like Clem, did a masterful job of moving HB 4078.

It was inspiring to see the Legislature work on a bipartisan basis to bring stakeholders together.

Chairs Clem and Hoyle deserve credit for sticking to their game plan, but also for leading a fair and open process. Vindication of their work was passage of HB 4078 in a 59-0 vote in the House. One assumes the same result will happen in the Senate.

The Tom McCall spirit and legacy is secure, thanks to fearless citizens who refused to be bullied by powerful interests in Washington County, by an Appeals Court stepping up and by legislators who found a path to a “win/win” end game.

Russ Dondero is professor emeritus of Pacific University’s Department of Politics and Government.

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