Oregon's at the Millenium Crossroads
(Oregon Planners' Journal, January-February 2000)
By Richard Carson
Oregon is one of the most planned states in America. Since the passage of Senate Bill 10 in 1969, Oregon has experienced over 30 years of cumulative statewide land use planning. Oregonians have consistently supported the program at the ballot box and defeated attempts to repeal it. The city and county comprehensive plans created in the late 1970s and early 1980s originally were planned to come due in the year 2000. However, as we begin the new millenium the news isn't good. Oregon's statewide land use planning system is at a political crossroads and there are warning signs up ahead.
Some of Oregon's most respected planning professionals are saying the program is in trouble. The current director of the Department of Land Conservation and Development (DLCD), Dick Benner, recently wrote that "...just as the land use program is graying at the temples, the consensus behind it is fraying at the edges." Benner's sentiments are echoed by the first director of DLCD, Arnold Cogan, who agreed and said that the "...program itself may be losing its focus and is more vulnerable to vigorous attack." For this reason Mr. Cogan has called for "...a comprehensive reevaluation of the entire land use program."
The basic and contradictory question is, "Has Oregon's statewide planning program failed or is it too successful?" In either case there is now a building consensus that the program may be dysfunctional and disconnected from the people it was meant to serve.
The problem is that the statewide planning program lost touch with the common sense values of the citizens it purports to plan for. How did we lose touch? The lack of growth of the early 1980s and the slow growth of the early 1990s lulled Oregonians into a false sense of well being. We believed that the planning program was working better than it was. This misconception resulted in citizens allowing government planners a great deal of discretion in pushing the edge of the social-engineering envelope.
At the same time the anti-government/anti-tax movement blossomed and resulted in a series of tax cutting ballot measures. More recently these sentiments killed such worthwhile projects as the Oregon Convention Center and the South/North Light Rail Project. Finally, we lost the entire generation of progressive Oregonians who originally put the program in place. The people who created the comprehensive plans of the late 1970s and early 1980s lost interest. The citizen involvement process withered to nothing.
Today the public sentiment about planning is the complete opposite of what it was. People say, "This growth is what planning has brought us." One of the pitfalls of claiming credit for the good times is that you get blamed for the bad. The indicators of failure litter the political landscape:
- The Portland metropolitan area is the 12th most congested in the nation.
- Oregon's four metropolitan areas are in the top 7 percent of the most expensive housing markets in the nation.
- Twenty-three (23) cities in Oregon have approved voter-annexation as a method to allow local voters to control growth. It passed in every city where it was placed on the ballot.
These symptoms are a reaction to the excessive public policy choices that have been made in the name of planning.
- The state and Metro have become phobic about the American automobile. Metro wants to require that garage doors be reduced in width and they don't want garage doors closer to the street than front entryways. They don't want automobile service facilities visible from transit stations. They want to reduce the number of parking spaces available for future residential and commercial developments.
- Metro and state planners have established higher density targets for local governments. However, there is no rational basis for the level of densification being mandated other than it being as much as the neighborhood residents will tolerate.
- The state's Land Conservation and Development Commission is now thinking of mandating "forced redevelopment" of cities before a city can expand its urban growth boundaries.
The good news is we don't need a complete overhaul of the state's planning program. What is need is a recognition that we have gone beyond the limits of what is reasonable, practical and even common sense. What can we do? What is common sense planning?
- Stop treating people like a disease. The anti-humanist rhetoric of the extremists in both the environmental and the no growth movement must be ignored. Lands within urban growth boundaries were not meant to create human reservations in order to isolate and immobilize people from destroying the environment.
- Acknowledge the American love affair with the car. The car in the 21st century will be cheaper, lighter and much more fuel efficient. There is no reason we can't invest in mass transit and our highways.
- If we believe that increasing residential densities around light rail stations makes sense, then we should also increase densities around freeway interchanges. The result will be less traffic in suburban neighborhoods.
- We should allow a reasonable level of development on less productive rural lands outside of urban growth boundaries. These being the lands that are not productive agricultural or forest lands. One efficient method would be to allow clustering of housing while putting deed restrictions on the remainder of the land as open space.
We must allow for the creation of new cities. The sad fact is that many cities don't have the political courage to expand their boundaries or are prevented from doing so by their voters. The result is that some counties allow for the urbanization in unincorporated areas. We need to change the laws so new cities can emerge when the existing cities fail to provide for growth.
- Mandate that cities either provide for growth by annexing land within urban growth boundaries or, if they opt out with voter-annexation, require that they increase densities within the city limits to accommodate growth.
- We can learn something from the state of Washington's Growth Management Act. We should establish statewide performance standards and then regionalize the statewide land use planning program so that it considers the local climate, geomorphology and economy.
- Finally, make citizen involvement a real program. We need to engage Oregonians in this substantive discussion and not just hold work shops where we politely listen to them.
We can find plenty of reasons not to do anything about fixing the state's planning program. For example, some will say that if we act now, the Republican legislature will use the opportunity to destroy the planning program. However, the fear of reformation is not justified. The fact that the Republican Party dominants the Oregon's legislature doesn't mean the program would be trashed. It was, after all, a Republican Governor -- Tom McCall and a bipartisan legislature who created the program. It was a Republican Governor named Victor Atiyeh who latter constructively redirected the program in the early 1980s. Planning in Oregon has always been a thoughtful and bipartisan effort.
One of Oregon's most eminent land use lawyers, Edward Sullivan, says that "Until then, I am afraid we will continue to be underachievers," he notes. "Until we have the will to formulate and achieve our public policy goals, we cannot realize the full benefits of our state land use program and richly deserve what we get."
Richard H. Carson is director of Clark County's Department of Community Development and managing editor of the Oregon Planners' Journal.