Chapter 3.4

Metro could fumble area's growth planning: Agency questions idea of carrying capacity.
(The Oregonian, June 21, 1994)

By Richard H. Carson

Our regional government, Metro, paid a group of out-of-state experts to produce a report explaining why "no growth" is not a viable option. This action was followed by a City Club of Portland forum on growth in which Metro forecast that in the next 50 years we will add 1.1 million more people to the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area -- for a total of 2.5 million people.

For many of us this validated our concerns about growth.

I agree we should not waste tax dollars on a phony "no growth" alternative. The Portland metropolitan area has been growing since the 1800s. All of us -- save the native tribes -- are immigrants or the children and grandchildren of immigrants. Anyone who doesn't want outsiders coming here should be the first to voluntarily leave. In other words, people who move to the Pacific Northwest are always welcome here.

However, we also need to start talking about some new ideas, not just the same old solutions to the same old problems.  While "no growth" is not a viable solution, "carrying capacity" and "limits-to-growth" are.

Metro now has announced its $500,000 publicity campaign to sell us the Region 2040 planning program. Metro's direct mail tabloid presents us with four future growth choices for the next 50 years:

- Continue planning as we have in the past (the status quo).

- Freeze the urban growth boundary and increase density.

- Expand the boundary and decrease density (sprawl).

- Have satellite cities outside the boundary absorb the new growth.

The Region 2040 Concept Report dismisses any "no-growth" or "slow-growth" policies by saying that "as we learn more about sustainability and carrying capacity we may need to revisit our growth options."

This is an incredibly disconcerting statement. To suggest that Metro "may need" to "revisit" carrying capacity is in direct conflict with the new Metro Charter directive to accommodate growth "within the carrying capacity of the land, water and air resources of the region."

Carry capacity is a well-known planning concept dating back to the 1960s.

Ian McHarg, Lewis Mumford and other planning gurus of that era warned us that if society didn't learn to live within the limitations of our human and natural systems, then society would pay a high price.

Carrying capacity includes the region's air quality, water quality and quantity, natural areas and wildlife corridors. However, carrying capacity is not just an environmental policy. Guaranteeing you and me an adequate water supply (even in a drought) is an economic policy. Having adequate access to natural areas and wildlife is a cultural decision. Having clean air and water is a health issue.

Metro's report goes on to say that the "results of no-growth or slow-growth policies include more congestion, longer commute times . . . higher housing and land prices, and lower real wages."

This is unbelievable! It is the same ridiculous argument that was used against statewide land-use planning legislation and the concept of urban-growth boundaries more than 20 years ago. How soon we forget that urban growth boundaries are a "no-growth" strategy created to stop urban levels of development in rural farming areas.

The reason we are not allowed to have the "limits to growth" discussion is that the region's planners are afraid they will lose control of the planning process. They are afraid that the reactionary groups -- people who want economic growth at any cost and people who want no new development -- will derail the utopian vision. Although a valid concern, it is not an acceptable reason for avoiding this discourse.

There is a viable alternative to the vapid rhetoric of "no growth." It's called "limits to growth." The relationship between limits to growth and carrying capacity is sequential. We would only implement limits to growth if we are going to exceed the region's carry capacity.

We should learn from our natural-resource-planning experience with ecosystem management -- let the university researchers and scientists provide us the objective analytical facts. We need a rigorous social, economic and environmental analysis to determine these limits. Then our elected officials can make the decisions.

Limits to growth could be implemented using several tools:

- Benchmarks. We must first establish minimum acceptable levels of carrying capacity.

- Concurrency. We would require growth to pay for itself. The implementation of Ballot Measure 5 has reduced government revenues, as well as curtailed the use of tax-increment financing. Oregon has become a "user-pay" society, and that makes concurrency an imperative. If someone wants to use the public's air, water and land resources, then he or she is going to have to pay for it. Concurrency becomes the price of admission to a region with an excellent quality of life.

- Preservation. We save what is left and stop development on the finite (as in God isn't making anymore) resources. This means designated natural areas or wildlife corridors that would have development prohibitions. If that requires legal compensation to property owners, then so be it. That is the reason for concurrency -- you pay for and buy into the system.

- Moratoriums. If we are going to exceed our carrying capacity, then we may have to stop development until the problem is solved by more money, better technology or more effective public policy.

Metro is scheduled to finalize its growth alternatives this summer and then have the council adopt a final alternative this fall. This will happen before Metro's own Future Vision Commission makes its recommendations and before the new Metro Charter Council takes office in January 1995.

I think we need a better citizen involvement process. To get people involved, I recommend we put the future growth alternatives to a regional advisory vote this fall! I also think we need an open and honest discussion about what all of us believe are the limits to growth we find acceptable.

We can't stop population growth. But we can let Metro know we want some limits placed on growth.

Richard H. Carson of Beaverton is a former Metro planning director who has been active in many land-use and planning campaigns. He frequently submits free-lance articles on these topics.

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Common Sense
by Richard H. Carson