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Growth boundary decision based on questionable assumptions

It was a foregone conclusion that the Metro council would decide the region’s existing urban growth boundary (UGB) is capable of absorbing nearly 200,000 new homes and 160,000 new jobs by 2035. As such, no one should be surprised by the council’s vote earlier this month not to expand the regional boundary.

Surprised, no — but perhaps concerned about the factual basis supporting that decision.

Metro has been signaling for months that its staff and councilors believe increased densities, as opposed to expanded boundaries, are the answer to the Portland metropolitan area’s continuing population boom. They anticipate an unprecedented shift in housing preferences, with people clamoring for apartments and condominiums instead of single-family homes. They also predict — depressingly — that household incomes will lag in Portland and people won’t be able to afford many of the single-family homes available.

The Metro UGB discussion has raised the question of whether councilors are using legitimate data to determine how people want to live in the Portland area of the future, or if they first are deciding what they think the future Portland should look like and then massaging the data to justify that outcome.

We have serious concerns about the assumptions underlying Metro’s decision, but we also agree with Metro’s Chief Operating Officer Martha Bennett, who argued it would be pointless for the council to vote now to expand the boundary. For a variety of legal, technical and political reasons, a decision to expand the boundary today would yield no opportunity for new development in the near future.

In her recommendation to the council, Bennett had suggested making a decision this year to keep the urban growth boundary intact, but committing to review the boundary again in just three years — which is much quicker than the six years required by state law. The council accepted Bennett’s recommendation, but now Metro President Tom Hughes and his fellow councilors need to consider whether their theories about future growth are consistent with reality.

Well-documented research challenges the hypothesis that people moving to Portland — along with many existing residents — will prefer multi-family housing over the traditional home and yard. This issue needs much more thorough analysis before a region’s growth plan can be based on a shaky assumption.

We also are concerned about the consequences — intended or otherwise — of a decision to pack more people and buildings inside the existing boundary.

Will a tight boundary around the metro area force more families into exurban communities such as Canby, Molalla, Scappoose, Estacada and Sandy, which are outside the boundary? Will this make commutes longer and traffic worse?

How will Portland’s neighborhoods react to the level of infill and apartment construction that would be required for the city to absorb its share of the population growth?

And perhaps most significantly, does the Portland area really want to base its long-range planning on the notion that its residents will lack the incomes necessary to buy the types of homes they want?

Assumptions about the size, quality and location of future growth are often inaccurate. Metro admits as much with its revision in this urban growth report of projections made for Damascus a decade ago. That area, which was brought into the urban growth boundary in 2002 and incorporated as a city in 2004, has failed to provide any of its expected housing and employment land.

Metro has since reduced the number of anticipated housing units in Damascus. Its projections, however, are still wildly optimistic. Damascus serves as a cautionary example that real life seldom adheres to even the best-researched projections. We concur with the decision to dramatically shorten the time before the next review of the urban growth boundary.

We also agree with Bennett that these discussions about growth should be an ongoing dialogue, rather than an episodic one occurring every six years. A continuing conversation between cities, the private sector and Metro will force everyone involved to consider facts — not theoretical concepts — when planning how the region will look in the future.