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Take a closer look at urban sprawl

As Washington County grows, the pressure to turn unincorporated areas into housing developments is like mushrooms growing in the forest — a force of nature. Home developers and non-farm “traded sector” industry is on the lookout for accessible land, and pressure to enlarge the urban growth boundary mounts as development takes place.

This type of development is considered the price of progress and the demands of the marketplace. The question is, is it worth the price?

The South Cooper Mountain area, which was recently annexed by Beaverton, highlights the need to ask this question. The impact of a high-density housing development means more traffic congestion and can lead to the widening of local rural roads not planned for suburbanization. Such development puts pressure on school districts to build new schools to meet enrollment demands from employee families who work for traded sector giants such as Nike or Intel.

This nexus of jobs, transportation, housing and education reminds us that planning should begin years before a big box company comes into or increases its footprint in suburban communities. Given such a footprint, local and county leaders need to ask tough questions, including who is going to pay for the needed infrastructure for this “progress.”

A “smart growth” strategy should bring local stakeholders together to develop a coordinated plan. Ideally, the plan would create scattered site housing developments, using existing infrastructure where possible, to mitigate the impact of development and to make commuting time from home to work less taxing for employees, their families and the public.

Why should Beaverton or Hillsboro be the center of focus when cities such as Forest Grove, North Plains, Banks and even Gaston are closer in terms of drive time to the high-tech traded sector corridor than South Cooper Mountain?

If the non-agriculture traded sector wants to increase its footprint, it should also be required to help defray the indirect costs of such growth. The proponents of big box businesses will argue that new employee property taxes and Gain Share money will do the trick. But this is an illusion, because exponential demand for services will outstrip such revenue.

In the era of tax giveaways to corporate Oregon, the questions are never posed, and “bigfoot” corporate Oregon grows in the suburbs of Washington County. The consequences of such growth — as the editors of The Oregonian have suggested, are left up to the planners “to make a realistic assessment of traffic options and impacts, and then determine how much density the infrastructure can handle.”

But once the horse is out of the barn, this “planning” is too little and too late.

The mantra of “planning” simply disguises the risks of urban sprawl. If one looked at sites now zoned as “industrial” land north of Evergreen Parkway, west of Brookwood Parkway, east of Glencoe Road and south of Highway 26 as a site instead for high density homes — near traded sector business, existing schools, a city library and infrastructure — the pressure to develop South Cooper Mountain would be reduced.

Heaven forbid that local and county “electeds” should look at that option, as opposed to a development five miles away from big box companies!

To the powers that be in Washington County, “progress is our most important product,” and the “business of government is to be bigfoot business-friendly,” even though agriculture is the second largest economic driver in the county and a resilient traded sector business that grew 17 percent despite the Great Recession.

But not all traded sector business is equal; some are more equal than others.

Russ Dondero is professor emeritus of the Department of Politics & Government at Pacific University. Read his blogs at russdondero.squarespace.com.




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