Chapter 3.15

Urban reserves are worthwhile
(The Oregonian, January 24, 2000)

By Richard H. Carson

Oregon's Land Conservation and Development Commission is holding a hearing Thursday to consider not requiring the use of urban reserves as a planning tool. Such an action would theoretically speed up the ability of local government to expand urban growth boundaries.

Unfortunately, this is a misdiagnosis of the actual disease. It is like believing you can cure the common head cold by removing the runny nose. In this case, the symptom of difficult to move urban growth boundaries has entirely different systemic cause.

Urban reserves save the taxpayers money.

The idea behind urban reserves is a simple one. Unfortunately, simple things done in the name of planning in Oregon often end up being legally and functionally unusable.

Urban reserves are areas designated outside and adjacent to urban growth boundaries. The purpose of urban reserve is to make the expansion of urban growth boundaries predictable and cost-efficient. Cities are faced with the problem of not knowing where the boundary will expand. If you don't know where it will expand, then you can't correctly size infrastructure connections for future transportation, water, sewer or storm water runoff. The result is that cities oversize everything and waste the taxpayers' dollars.

With urban reserves, cities know exactly where development is going and where it is not. With this vital information cities can size the infrastructure exactly. This infrastructure disconnect is especially critical in major metropolitan areas, where large utility companies use a 50-year capital improvement timeframe.

However, the urban governments are only planning with a 20-year land supply with the urban growth boundary. The elegant solution to this dilemma was to add an additional 30 years of urban reserve lands outside the boundary to accommodate the infrastructure planning and investment.

The key word here is "reserve." This land is not available for urban development until the boundary is moved.

We should keep urban reserves as a planning tool, but change it so it works. Once an urban reserve is established, the argument about the future "resource value" of the land should already be decided. The only decision left should be the timing of when the boundary needs to move. In other words, no one should be able to litigate the land's resource value.

Why is "resource value" an issue? The real problem facing Metro today is that its allowed prime farmland to be included in the inventory of lands that can be developed in the future. This is a direct violation of Statewide Planning Goal 3 - "Agriculture." Metro did this because the cities in Washington County are surrounded by agricultural resource lands and these cities are the economic engines of the state. The cities demand the equal opportunity to grow, as other cities in the state, and as allowed under the Statewide Planning Goal 9 - "Economic Development." So the first problem is that we have competing goals protecting different types of land resource values.

The second problem is we don't have a viable method of resolving conflicting Statewide Planning Goals. The urban reserve issue is a red herring that allows both Metro and the Land Conservation and Development Commission to ignore their own accountability and to ignore the real issue. The real problem is that the original 19 Statewide Planning Goals were intentionally left ambiguous about which goal prevailed in the argument about preserving farmland vs. creating new jobs. At the time the Oregon Legislature talked of "balancing" the goals, but this euphemism merely meant it would later become a political choice.

If our elected officials fail to provide a clear understanding of their legislative intent, then they are intentionally abrogating their responsibility to the judiciary. That's what's wrong with the Oregon's statewide planning program. The legislative inability to resolve key issues is supplanted by massive and ongoing litigation.

We can eliminate the urban reserves - or cut off our nose to spite our face - but this will not cure the underlying disease of land-use litigation. The battle over the movement of urban growth boundaries will remain in the hands of the lawyers until the legislature steps up to answer the "resource value" question. Poor legislation results in more litigation. Until Oregonians realize that, we will have an adversarial legal system and not a rational planning system.

Richard H. Carson is the managing editor of the Oregon Planners' Journal, an elected board member of the Oregon chapter of the American Planning Association and a former director of Metro. He is now the community development director of Clark County, Wash. He can be reached via the Internet at richcarson@msn.com.

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Common Sense
by Richard H. Carson