By Richard H. Carson
The Pacific Northwest states of Oregon and Washington are viewed by the faithful of the environmental and new urbanism movements to be the Mecca and the Medina of urban planning.
That is because both states have adopted state-mandated land use planning laws. Both state require comprehensive plans, and urban growth boundaries, and have down zoned the rural areas outside of these boundaries.
But the reality is that these state mandates are carried out very differently and the impacts to property owners and neighborhood residents are also very different. No where is this more stark than in the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area – where the mighty Columbia River divides both the region and the states. To the south is the city of Portland and the state of Oregon and to the north is the city of Vancouver and the state of Washington.
I am the planning director for Clark County – which is where Vancouver is located. I am also the former planning director for the Portland regional government. So I am uniquely qualified to talk about how things are different.
Before I talk about these differences, let my do some “truth in advertising.” In the world of urban planning, I have been called a lot of things… but characterizing me as a “contrarian planner” is acceptable. My views are considered by the planning community to border on “heresy.” But if I am to be called a “heretic,” than I have to counter that my detractors are “fanatics.”
Now you may beginning to wonder why I am talking about all this in “religious” terms. It is intentional on my part. To some supporters of state-mandated planning – it is tantamount to a state-sponsored religion.
So let me start with some over generalizations. The planning practiced in Portland and Oregon is highly centralized with the law dictated at the state level, and it is very much about social engineering. Planning, as practiced in Vancouver and Washington, is more decentralized to the local level, and is more concerned about the cost efficient deliver of services and having compatible land uses.
Now that I have given the “attitude full disclosure,” I want to first give you an “objective” comparison of the programs – then I will give you my “subjective” view about what it means in practice.
I say this part of the presentation is “objective” because I have reviewed it with planners and lawyers in both states, and incorporated their observations and changes.
OK, so let me move from the “objective” to the “subjective.”
What does all this means when practiced?
These are cities divided by good decisions and bad decisions made in the name of urban planning. One city thrives and the other one is almost bankrupt. And people are fleeing from one city to live in the other.
The urban prospect for Portland, Oregon these days is nothing but bleak. The poster-child for progressive urban planning is reeling from the national media debacle of middle- and upper-income Portlanders fleeing across the state border, in this case the Columbia River, to the neighboring city of Vancouver, Washington.
According to the 2000 Census, Clark County is the fastest growing county in the state of Washington and in the Portland-Vancouver metro area. 28 people move into the county everyday of the year. And according to the vehicle licensing department, a little over 50% of these people come from Oregon.
Simply put, the prime motivator behind this migration is that Vancouver, Washington looks very attractive in comparison to Portland, Oregon.
Why? Because Oregon’s great social experiment failed to measure up to political reality. The fact is that Oregon’s government infrastructure and services are deteriorating, and with it is going Oregon’s quality-of-life. Things in Oregon have gotten so bad that Washington Post national columnist, Neal Pierce, recently wrote an essay that asked, “Have you Oregonians gone daft?”
So what brought about this failure of governance in Portland, Oregon?
- A ballot measure passed in Oregon in 2000 was the most draconian property compensation law the nation has ever seen. It passed in part because voters were getting tired of the state and local government’s high-handed property takings. But government officials persuaded the very liberal Oregon Supreme Court to invalidate the vote and that subterfuge angered the voters.
- The voters also turned down the last two attempts to increase taxes to expand the light rail system. So the city of Portland and the local transit authority found ways to build the last 11 miles without the voters having a vote. Again the government circumvented the will of the voters.
- The cost of development is becoming prohibitive in Portland. So much so that Portland area’s homebuilder association told its membership to stop building in the city because of unfair regulations. Then there are the urban legend stories, like the one about a pizza storeowner being charged $27,000 because he just wanted to move across the street.
- The city of Portland even went so far as to ban what is called “snout houses.” You can’t build a house where the garage door is closer to the street than the front door. In other words, it is a purely psychological statement the pedestrian access to a house is more important than vehicular access. In all fairness, there is more wrong here than “over” planning.
- All of government indifference to what the voters really want has led to a number of anti-government tax initiatives have put both government services and school funding at risk. For example, the Portland School District planned to cut 24 days off its school calendar, making it one of the shortest school years in the nation. Washington school district officials have Oregonians calling them and asking if they can live in Oregon and put their children in Washington schools. The answer, of course, is “no.”
Part of the attraction to Vancouver is that parents believe the city of Vancouver and Clark County are family-oriented communities with good public schools. The county has one of the highest home ownership rates in the nation. If you move from Oregon to Washington, then you can get a 9 percent pay raise because Washington has no income tax. The property taxes and homes cost slightly less in Clark County. Even the gas is cheaper in Washington because Oregon doesn’t allow its citizens to pump their own gas.
In closing, the city of Vancouver and Clark County benefited from similar statewide planning legislation, the Growth Management Act, passed in 1990. Although it came 17 years after Oregon, the Washington version kept the positive aspects of Oregon’s efforts (i.e., urban growth boundaries, minimum urban densities, infill requirements) and ignored some of the more onerous ones. The latter includes the centralization of all land use authority to one Oregon state department with enormous administrative rule-making authority and a central land use court, both of which proscribe one-size-fits-all remedies.
Also, Washington has kept its emphasis on the “functionality” of land use planning – and not the “psychology” of land use planning. Washington plans in order to minimize “sprawl” and the costly inefficiencies of serving leap-frog development. We plan so that land use are compatible with each other. It is very pragmatic and practical planning.
Oregon, on the other had, does this and much, much more. They are trying to dictate lifestyles and behavior at a state level, through an agency with no accountability, who members have – quite frankly – been appointed by 20 years of liberal governors.