Chapter 2.9

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: The Contrarian's Take
on Planning Today in the Pacific Northwest
(Western Planner, January 2003)

By Richard H. Carson

I have been a practicing planner for almost 30 years. Most of my experience has been in Oregon and Washington  arguably the Mecca and the Medina of the planning faithful. Oregon enacted its Statewide Planning Goals in 1973 and Washington its Growth Management Act in 1990. I have spent my career working in an environment of state-mandated growth management. So you might think I am a great champion of what has occurred in both states. But I have been called a contrarian planner for good reason. I am pretty blunt about what I see as the good, the bad and the ugly in terms of what we have done in the Pacific Northwest.


Urban growth boundaries. In many ways, the Pacific Northwest experiment has been very progressive and taken the art of land use planning to new levels of public policy. Our greatest contribution has been the creation of urban growth boundaries combined with capital facility plans. We have increased the cost-efficient delivery of urban services and eliminated the "leap frog" development that made infrastructure so expensive in the past. By the way, "leap frog" is an archaic term for "sprawl."

Transportation. Oregon pioneered the use of light rail for mass transit.  Light rail is more expensive than a bus system, but the truth is that bus systems are a miserable form of transportation.  They tend to be smelly, crowded and just plain uncomfortable. I think it says a lot about us as a society to give those citizens who are older or younger, poorer or disabled a decent mode of travel.

Impact fees. Through the use of impact fees both states have done a good job of making sure development pays it way. Unfortunately, neither state has achieved full-cost recovery. We are doing a better job than most other states, but still only recovering 60 cents on the dollar.


Urban growth boundaries. The dark side of urban growth boundaries and contained urbanization is what we did to the rural areas. The land-use, water resource and environmental laws have systematically destroyed many of these people's family and social structures, as well as their economic well being. We created an unfair and uncompensated change in the land economics for everyone outside the UGBs. We said we had to devalue their property in order to protect its resource value. However, the truth is much of it had no farm or forest value. We just wanted everyone to live in cities to protect the natural environment from more human settlements.

Citizen initiatives. Unfortunately, Oregon and Washington have also been fertile ground for citizen voter-initiatives. Both have passed tax limitations that were seen by many voters as a way to stop subsidizing growth. Today Oregon's health and education systems are in shambles. Oregon voters recently passed the most far-reaching property compensation law ever enacted. It passed, in part, because of the high-handed land use tactics of the local government planners who abused their police powers. Oregon also allows voter-annexation in many cities and local voters approve or deny each and every annexation. This means the 20-year horizon in the comprehensive plan is only as realistic as the voting whims of the electorate.

Case law. The legal low point was the U.S. Supreme Court's finding in the landmark Oregon case of Dolan v. City of Tigard. They decided there was no nexus between requiring a dedication for a bike path and approving a permit for expanding a plumbing store. I guess the court didn't believe a person riding a mountain bike would go down to pick up a toilet.

Transportation. We have also moved well beyond being planners and started becoming social engineers. We have decided that the automobile is socially and environmentally bad, and we undertook a holy quest to change our autocentric society and its cultural values. The attempt to eliminate the dreaded "snout house" and "cul-de-sac" are good examples of our autophobic actions. But why does the environmentally-leaning Rocky Mountain Institute say that the automobile of the future will use little fossil fuel, improve air quality and proliferate because it will be so cheap? Who is the more politically incorrect, the planners or the environmentalists?

Density. The desire to increase density within urban areas has also been taken to extremes. The desire to have a compact urban growth form doesn't mean we have to pack people into cities like sardines. The writings of Ian McHarg and Carl Sagan confirm that there is pathology to neighborhood density. What's wrong with letting people have the houses they want and can afford? Most people don't want to live in cute little neo-traditional towns that look more like Disney's Main Street than America's Main Street.

SEPA. The state environmental protection act (SEPA) is a hang-over from the 1960s federal legislation. Oregon correctly decided that if you actually did comprehensive planning, that took into account the environment, then every project didn't need an environmental impact statement. Unfortunately, Washington and California didn't get rid of it.

Concurrency. This is another defective management tool. Transportation corridors in Washington are going into failure and causing moratoriums not because the developers won't pay to improve them. It's because the taxpayers won't pay. Portland and Seattle are two of the most congested cities in the country. The only difference is that Portland did it on purpose. The planners actually believe that increased density and worsening traffic congestion will get people to walk or ride a bike  in the rain.

Centralized government. Oregon's centralizing all land use authority to a single autonomous state agency and a single autonomous land use court was a big mistake. Nowhere in America do you find such a lack of political accountability. Oregon's Department of Land Conservation and Development (the latter word is a euphemism for non-development) has complete legislative ability through its unchecked administrative rule-making authority. The result is a one-size fits all policy approach that favors the metropolitan areas and penalizes the smaller cities and rural areas. Washington, on the other hand, has a state agency that strives to educate and encourage jurisdictions, and has decentralized it courts into three regional hearing boards that better understand local concerns.


Citizen involvement. The ugly truth is we have lost touch with political reality and the citizens that Daniel Kemmis, writer and former mayor of Missoula, calls the "people of the place." In Oregon, the comprehensive plans have run their 20-year planning course. But the citizens who originally created the plans have moved on. The following generations have  a much more negative view of government. Citizen involvement has been replaced with self-serving voter initiatives designed to strip government bare and fatten the voters' wallet. The series of voter -approved initiatives in both states is destroying the very fabric of our northwest society  and we planners share the blame. We contributed to the anti-government sentiment through our indifference to the wants of our citizens.

Limits to growth. Our intent has been only to manage growth and not permanently contain it. So it is inevitable that the West Coast will eventually evolve into a massive megalopolis stretching along Interstate 5 from Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego to Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia. It is time we did something about limiting growth, requiring permanent buffers between cities and metropolitan areas, and achieving economic and environmental sustainability.

Richard H. Carson is the director of the Clark County Department of Community Development in Vancouver, Washington. Rich is the former director of planning for METRO, the regional government for the Portland region's 24 cities and 3 counties. He was previously an elected member of the Oregon Chapter of the APA and the editor of the Oregon Planners Journal. He currently writes a regularly for the Internet's Planetizen and maintains some 400 websites as an editor for the Open Directory Project's Urban and Regional Planning category. He can be reached at 360-397-2375, ext. 4101 or at rich.carson@clark.wa.gov. 

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Common Sense
by Richard H. Carson