A so-called “grand bargain” on land use in the 2014 Legislature would be a long-term boon for the Portland region, one of its advocates said last Friday.

Meanwhile, some of the beneficiaries of the bargain had varied reactions to it Feb. 14, mostly with some shade of neutrality.

State Rep. Ben Unger (D-Hillsboro), is one of three main proponents of the bargain, along with Reps. Brian Clem (D-Salem) and John Davis (R-Wilsonville). In an interview Friday afternoon, Unger said the bargain would designate land north of Highway 26 near Brookwood Parkway as a rural reserve — protected from development for the next 50 years.

In exchange, it would declare final a 2011 Metro urban growth boundary (UGB) decision to add land south of Hillsboro for residential development. The bargain, Unger said, would not add any new urban reserves to the area around Hillsboro to make up for the area that would be barred from development.

“It’s worth trading the protection of farmland for a while, and in my opinion, it protects the two economic strengths of the region — it allows us to have land certain for developers but also provides us with the agricultural, tourism and quality of life issues that also help promote a vibrant economy in our area,” Unger said. “It’s a very Washington County solution to a real Washington County problem.”

The proposal was blasted by Metro Council President Tom Hughes, who spent hours in meetings with legislators and said he thought the push was coming from five groups: Save Helvetia, 1000 Friends of Oregon, some Washington County farmers, homebuilders and the developers of South Hillsboro.

Save Helvetia advocate Cherry Amabisca said her group has not been consulted on the bargain. Until they see something in writing, she said, they are remaining neutral on the prospect of a deal.

Group members argued throughout the years-long reserves designation process that land north of Highway 26 should be kept as a rural reserve, locking in farming for the next half century and prohibiting development.

“We’re waiting to see what is unfolding in a more definite form,” Amabisca said. “There’s all kinds of innuendo, all kinds of things that we’re hearing, and since we’re not at the table, whatever table that is, we have not been involved in the discussions.”

Similarly, Mary Kyle McCurdy, an attorney for 1000 Friends, was coy about the concept.

“We’re not part of it; it’s not our deal,” McCurdy said.

The region’s designation of urban and rural reserves has been under review by the Oregon Court of Appeals for more than a year. Until the court makes its ruling on the case — which one court representative called the most complex in the court’s history — it won’t review Metro’s 2011 UGB expansion and the state’s approval of it.

Unger said the Portland region got the reserves designation 99 percent of the way to the finish line.

“But we’re stuck, and in fact the ‘stuckedness’ is undermining all of that great work,” Unger said. “If we can just get that last 1 percent unstuck, we can make this process work the first time and for a long time to come.”

He dismissed Metro’s argument that the Legislature shouldn’t usurp local planning authority.

“We haven’t had the chance to super-protect some places that I think should be super-protected,” Unger said, referring to the land north of Highway 26.

Unless the grand bargain passes, dirt can’t turn at South Hillsboro, a planned development south of Tualatin Valley Highway and Cornelius Pass Road, until the conclusion of all legal challenges.

Nick Christensen is a reporter employed by Metro. His stories are not subject to the approval of Metro staff or elected officials, and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Metro staff or councilors.

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