Portland Region’s Invisible Wall

By Don MacGillivray


The State of Oregon requires Metro to examine the metropolitan Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) to determine if it requires additional land for future development.

The new draft 2014 Urban Growth Report(UGR) is the major document that informs Metro Council and the public regarding this question.

By law, Metro must have 20 years worth of buildable land available for development within the urban growth boundary. The previous Metro plans and their stated values along with historical precedence will heavily influence decisions to be made in 2015.

The report is an insightful look created with the help of the councils of twenty-five cities, three counties, and many expert consultants. It will help to determine how the region will grow over the next twenty years.

Metro must justify the location of the UGB and why or why not it should be expanded.

The primary question is:  how much growth will occur in the Portland region over the next 20 years?

The next question is: will an expansion of the UGB be needed? Representatives from development interests participated in the formulation of the plan and many of their ideas and values are included.

The UGB was created forty years ago and continues to be controversial. Preventing urban sprawl and conserving the best farmland in the state are two of the reasons to maintain the current UGB as it is.

In the last 20 years, the population of the seven-county Metro region increased by 700,000 people. In the next 20 years it may grow nearly as much, but there is speculation and argument about this issue.

This draft report estimates there will be 260,000 new jobs, 400,000 new residents, and 200,000 new homes in the region. These estimates are for the Portland metropolitan statistical area six Oregon metropolitan counties and Clark County, Washington.

The estimates from the Urban Growth Report (UGR) of five years ago are larger than the new ones. Growth will remain a big issue and critics are calling for a closer review of growth estimates,

Twenty-four of the twenty-five mayors in the region wrote to the Metro Council to express their shared concerns about the assumptions in the draft 2014 UGR.

They expressed concern over the split between multi-family and single-family housing forecast for the region in the future.

The UGR assumes a change in the split between single-family housing and multi-family housing from 60 / 40 percent to a 36 / 64 percent. This in part is due to the large absorption of growth in the City of Portland that expects almost 60 percent of the regional housing capacity.

The mayors suggest that not providing the desired single-family housing will cause increased growth in the neighboring cities of Canby and Sandy and Woodburn and create increased commuting by car to and from work. If these percentages were 50 / 50 percent 4,000 more acres (6.25 square miles) would need to be added within the UGB.

The affordability of housing is a major concern. Low income families are especially disadvantaged if work is a great distance from their homes. Since working families prefer to live near their work locations, development of a mixture of housing and employment should occur in mixed-use communities.

It has been found that expanding and increasing the capacity of existing systems is less expensive than extending infrastructure beyond the current UGB. It will take $10 billion to maintain the existing infrastructure and much more if additional growth occurs.

The decision about where the UGB should fall challenges environmentalists, property owners, and development interests to find common ground.

Environmentalists are most often opposed to the expansion of the UGB and they say that growth will decrease the livability by requiring more government spending, increasing auto usage, and compromise the general appearance of the urban context.

Developers make the case that there is too little available land within the UGB for needed development.

The government is taking away the rights of the property owners to develop their land to the highest and best use and failure to expand the UGB may increase development costs, traffic congestion, reduced livability, and stagnate tax revenues for schools and public services.

Even Portland State University’s Urban Studies Department and PSU Center for Real Estate have differing opinions.

Local city and county governments must work with Metro to find good solutions to the issues around growth and development. In addition, housing, commerce, transportation, utilities, and a variety of additional development needs must be considered.

It is necessary to carefully select the best locations to include within the boundary. When the Damascus area was added within the growth boundary it was very controversial and the issue is still is not fully resolved.

The potential areas for inclusion will undoubtedly get a robust review. There will also be a discussion about how much and the kind of growth Portland should encourage.

Next year’s UGB decision will be made by the Metro Council in the fourth quarter of 2015.

Comments about the plan will be solicited from citizens within the entire region. Only with the approval of citizens, businesses, and institutions of the regional community, will the plan be able to succeed.


Portland Region’s Invisible Wall

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