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Metro councilors should bring reality back into urban growth boundary decisions

The perennial question of whether the Portland area should grow outward or inward is back before the Metro Council, which is required to decide whether the urban growth boundary is sufficiently large to handle a rapidly expanding population for the next 20 years.

No one should be at all surprised that the Metro president and six regional councilors are poised to decide the boundary is just fine as it is and perfectly capable of absorbing nearly 200,000 new homes and 260,000 new jobs by 2035.

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 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.

There’s a chicken-and-egg quality to the current Metro discussion: Are councilors using legitimate data to determine how people want to live in the Portland area of the future? Or are they first deciding what they think the future Portland should look like and then manipulating the data to justify that outcome?

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

In her recommendation to the council, Bennett suggests making a decision this year to keep the urban growth boundary intact but committing to review the boundary again in just three years — much sooner than the six years required by state law. Bennett’s recommendation on this point is a good one, if indeed Metro President Tom Hughes and his fellow councilors take her suggestion to heart.

Hughes and the council should listen carefully, however, because well-documented research is challenging their hypothesis that people moving to Portland — along with many current residents — will prefer multifamily housing over the traditional home and yard. This issue needs much more thorough analysis before the 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 within 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 neighborhoods react to the level of infill and apartment construction that would be required for the cities to absorb their share of the population growth?

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 often are inaccurate. Metro is admitting 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 now is trimming the number of anticipated housing units in Damascus. Its predictions, however, are still wildly optimistic, given that the city is about to dissolve and development will have to occur in unincorporated areas or through annexation to neighboring cities.

Damascus serves as a cautionary example. Real life seldom adheres to even the best-researched projections. We concur with Bennett’s call 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 reality — not theoretical concepts — when planning how the region will look in the future.