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Metro Council accepts urban growth report

Yearlong research will explore effects of increasing density

The Metro Council unanimously accepted a controversial report on Dec. 4 that is intended to guide the council’s scheduled decision on expanding the Urban Growth Boundary next year.

The 2014 Urban Growth Report says the UGB does not need to be expanded if enough cities implement their existing plans to increase density.

“More dense urban forms are consistent with where we’re going,” said Metro President Tom Hughes.

Photo Credit: COURTESY METRO - Metro President Tom Hughes says the region is moving toward denser development.

The report says historical home-building trends must be reversed to maintain the UGB. Between 1960 and 2010, 60 percent of all new homes have been detached single-family houses and 40 percent have been multifamily buildings. The report predicts that pattern will be more than reversed during the next 20 years, with only 36 percent of all new homes being detached single-family houses and 64 percent being multifamily buildings.

Witnesses who testified before the vote were split over whether such a density increase will maintain livability or hurt the economy. Mary Kyle McCurdy, policy director and staff attorney for 1000 Friends of Oregon, said the report was a well-researched foundation for next year’s decision. But Wilsonville Mayor Tim Knapp said its assumptions could slow his city’s historic growth.

The council also discussed letters it had received questioning whether the density increase was possible, how much it might increase housing costs, and whether local governments can afford the required subsidies.

The letters included one sent by an ad-hoc group representing every mayor in the region — except Portland Mayor Charlie Hales. Portland is currently working to update the state-required Comprehensive Plan that governs growth to encourage higher density.

Among other things, the other 24 mayors in the Metropolitan Mayors Consortium said increasing density could have negative impacts, such as, “Forcing those looking for affordable single-family housing to move to neighboring communities outside the metropolitan region, resulting in longer commute times.”

Other letters challenging the report were submitted by Washington County Chairman Andy Dyuck, Happy Valley Mayor Lori DeRemer, and the Coalition for a Prosperous Region, which includes the Clackamas County Business

Alliance, the Columbia Corridor Association, the Commercial Association of Brokers, the NAIOP Oregon Chapter, the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland, the Portland Metropolitan Association of Realtors, the Portland Business Alliance, and the Westside Economic Alliance.

According to Hughes, accepting the report is just the beginning of a yearlong process that will include additional research on issues raised by those who are questioning the report. The council is not scheduled to decide whether to expand the UGB until late next year. The next expansion decision will be in 2021.

Years of controversy

Metro is the elected government charged with land-use planning in the urbanized areas of Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties. The UGB it administers restricts where new development can occur in much of the larger region. The current controversy follows years of disputes following Metro’s previous UGB decisions.

Under state law, Metro must consider expanding the UGB every six years. The decisions can be appealed to the state Land Conservation and Development Commission, the Oregon Court of Appeals, and the Oregon Surpeme Court. Seven years ago, Metro asked the Oregon Legislature for a two-year extension to designate areas as urban and rural reserves. The idea was to bring more certainty to the planning process by identifying where growth can and cannot occur over the following 50 years. The Legislature agreed, and the council designated the reserves in 2010. It slightly expanded the UGB the next year, mostly in Washington County.

Both actions were appealed by some environmental groups and property owners. The challenges reached the Oregon Court of Appeals, which did not rule on them for years, preventing development in the new expansion areas from occurring.

The Legislature finally intervened during the 2014 session and passed the so-called Grand Bargain that overrode the appeals process, approved slightly different reserves, and ratified most of the expansion areas.

By then it was time for Metro to begin considering whether to expand the UGB again. The 2014 Urban Growth Report says that will not be necessary, based in part on an analysis of land-use plans adopted by the cities in the region. According to the report, if they are enacted, most new housing built in the region over the next 20 years will be apartments and condominiums, especially in Portland. Although the report predicts that will be enough to accommodate the majority of the additional people expected to move to the region, that assumption has been challenged on several grounds.

For starters, a Residential Preference Survey commissioned by Metro found that people in the region want to live in a detached single-family house.

Portland State University real estate professor Gerard Mildner predicts housing costs will double. The 24 mayors question whether Portland actually can achieve its density goals. Additionally, some Damascus residents charge the report is wrong when it says a significant number of new homes will be built in their city over the next 20 years. City residents repeatedly have defeated development plans at the polls and the new electorate is pushing to disincorporate Damascus.

Issues need to be addressed

Hughes and the other Metro councilors acknowledged that such concerns need to be addressed over the next year. But they still said the Urban Growth Report was a good start for the discussions.

At the same time, some of the councilors and witnesses questioned whether there is any point in expanding the UGB next year. They said very little development has occurred in any of the expansion areas approved in the past, in large part because few local governments have agreed to provide the governance and fund the infrastructure improvements necessary for development.

And they say allowing even 50 percent of new housing to be detached single-family houses would require the UGB to be expanded 4,000 acres every six years. That assumes every new house would be built outside the existing UGB.

However, even McCurdy admitted that future infrastructure funding is a significant issue — regardless of where new development occurs. She noted Metro says governments in the region need to raise and spend $10 billion in coming years just to maintain their current infrastructure, and any new project to accommodate growth will cost even more.

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