Every day, people move to greater Portland for good, and babies come crying into the world in local hospitals.
More people arrive in the region than leave each day. As a result, we're growing – by scores of people each day, tens of thousands each year. All those people need places to live. Some want apartments and others want houses. Everyone needs a place they can afford.
Do we have the land we need to build those homes? If not, where should we grow?
In Oregon, how we grow is a public conversation. Often, a lot of that conversation focuses on the urban growth boundary, which is meant to provide room for 20 years of growth inside while protecting farms and forests outside.
Every few years in greater Portland, we have an opportunity to look together at the boundary and discuss how we want to grow. Next year is the next chapter in that conversation. We are growing in numbers, that is certain. Is it time to grow out as well?
Here are seven things to know about the urban growth boundary and what could be in store in 2018.
First, here’s why we have an urban growth boundary.
Simply put: Oregonians want a say in how growth happens.
In 1973, a coalition of farmers, environmentalists, foresters and businesspeople led by Gov. Tom McCall helped reform the state’s land use laws. Among other things, the reforms directed cities to maintain urban growth boundaries and involve the public in growth decisions. The goal: Make sure growth maintains and enhances what people value about Oregon, instead of paving those qualities over.
Every city and town in Oregon has an urban growth boundary now, managed locally with oversight from the state. The boundaries provide room for development while also making new growth as efficient as possible. They protect high-quality farmland, forests and natural habitats. And they help make the most of public dollars to build and maintain streets, pipes, schools and parks that every community needs. They create breathing room between cities and defined edges to the urban footprint.
It’s no wonder that the urban growth boundary has become intimately important to most Oregonians.
And after nearly 40 years of having growth boundaries, history has shown they largely work – thousands of acres of farmland and natural areas have been protected from sprawl, while greater Portland’s economy and quality of life have blossomed into the envy of many other regions.
But Oregon's urban growth boundaries are not permanently fixed – indeed, they're designed to grow themselves when needed.
Greater Portland’s urban growth boundary makes room for 20 years of growth.
See a map and a history of greater Portland's urban growth boundary.
Follow along with the 2018 growth management decision.
In a metropolitan area as big and connected as ours, most people cross city and county lines every day. Greater Portland has Oregon’s only regional urban growth boundary, including the urban portions of three counties, 24 cities and more than 1.6 million residents. A regional boundary – managed by Metro – provides a coordinated approach and reduces intercity growth rivalries that can fuel sprawl in some metropolitan areas.
By state law, Metro must review the boundary for possible expansion every six years. The intent: Determine whether there is enough land inside the growth boundary for 20 years of job and population growth.
It’s more than crunching spreadsheets. The process includes public conversations, careful technical analysis and detailed policy discussions among elected leaders and stakeholders throughout the region.
Metro studies trends in a wide variety of factors, from changes in population growth, household size and consumer desires, to the future of workplaces and transportation. They also look at what kind of development has been happening and where.
Metro then compares all these trends with careful analysis of what locations inside the growth boundary are likely to be development-ready in the next 20 years, basing estimates on market conditions and local zoning set by the region's 24 cities and three counties.
All this work is conducted with public scrutiny and input, along with close oversight and review by subject-matter experts, local governments, an array of agencies and organizations.
At the end of all that, the Metro Council must decide whether there’s a need to expand the urban growth boundary for more houses and/or jobs. If so, they must decide where to do it.
The Metro Council has expanded Greater Portland’s urban growth boundary dozens of times – but not in 2015.
Metro has expanded the urban growth boundary dozens of times. During that time, most population and job growth has happened, as planned, in existing cities, as well as in new urban areas inside the original boundary. But many past expansion areas still haven’t been developed. Others are only just seeing activity after years or even decades of being inside the boundary.
The Metro Council last reviewed the growth boundary in 2015. And despite rapid growth, the analysis then showed more than enough land for homes in greater Portland’s urban growth boundary: Room for tens of thousands single-family homes and many more apartments and condos, on empty lands at the fringe and through redevelopment.
So in 2015, the Metro Council directed planners to keep working with communities to get more land ready for development – but it held the boundary in place. It also launched a new Regional Snapshot program to more transparently and frequently check in on growth trends.
But the council also directed Metro staff to review the growth boundary again three years sooner than state law requires. By 2018, they reasoned, we should know whether growth is still matching expectations, and if not, what to do about it. And, that would also give Metro a chance to check in with local elected officials about whether urban apartment construction represented an anomaly – as some homebuilders and suburban leaders said – or a longer-lasting nationwide trend, as economists indicated.
Finally, they created a special task force of mayors, homebuilders, planning advocates and others to explore land use reforms that could provide more flexibility for growth expansions and make sure that expansions help meet regional goals. (More on that later.)
It takes more than dirt to grow a garden – and more than vacant land for homes.
During the Great Recession, very little housing was built in the region. At the same time, people kept moving here. Builders have still been scrambling to keep up with the surge in demand for all those people, and housing prices have gone up – dramatically, in many places. In short, Greater Portland needs more homes.
Near-daily headlines show our housing woes are similar in cities all over the country, from Dallas and Denver to Reno and Boise: Booming economy plus sustained population growth spikes housing costs in once-affordable cities.
But there’s a lot of land inside the boundary waiting for homes. Why is it taking so long to develop, if demand is so fierce?
It takes more than dirt to grow a garden. It takes more than land to grow houses. Thousands of vacant acres on the edges of the existing boundary and in some town centers attest to that. Without money for streets, pipes, schools and parks – and without local will or market interest to pay for those things – land stays vacant. Until something changes.
But greater Portland has an advantage over other growing metro areas. For one thing, Metro has grants that can help local governments plan to kickstart growth in these areas.
More importantly: Through thoughtful public conversation and close analysis of our options, urban growth boundary decisions can help get housing built where it’s best and needed most.
In 2018, cities that want growth will have to show they’re ready.
Remember that task force the Metro Council requested in 2015? The mayors, home builders, land use advocates and Metro councilors on the task force came up with several unanimous recommendations, including this: Make sure that growth happens where communities are ready – and where communities can show they’re making progress on making homes affordable and job opportunities available.
The Metro Council has planted that recommendation firmly at the center of the 2018 growth boundary process. If an expansion is needed, it should only happen where communities are ready and housing is likely to be built in coming years.
Cities must complete concept plans and show evidence that they and the private sector are ready to create new homes and neighborhoods. (Metro grants can help.) Cities must also show they’re making progress on local goals and regional priorities for housing affordability, job creation, transportation, natural areas and other factors – in their proposed expansion and inside existing city limits.
If there is a need to expand the growth boundary, the Metro Council will weigh the merits of each city’s expansion proposal and listen to the public before making a decision about where it should happen.
Urban and rural reserves could make growth more predictable.
This new – more practical – era of managing growth is about to begin, but it all hinges on final agreement on urban and rural reserves.
Urban and rural reserves are a major reform for the Portland area's growth management process: A 50-year map for where greater Portland will grow – and where it won’t. Once the map is final, urban growth boundary expansions will go first to urban reserve areas, while rural reserve areas won’t be developed before 2060.
Before the reserves, the Metro Council was more or less forced to expand the growth boundary into areas with the lowest-quality farmland, regardless of whether those areas were sensible or likely to develop. Reserves will change that, by allowing the Metro Council to choose to grow where growth makes sense.
They've been in the works for years, through countless hours of meetings and public hearings and revisions of the map. Metro and the three counties adopted a reserves map back in 2011, but a state court later overturned it. The Legislature intervened to finalize reserves in Washington County in 2014, but left them unresolved in Clackamas and Multnomah counties. Ever since, they've been in limbo.
But the resolution could be in sight. Leaders are confident that the Metro Council and Multnomah and Clackamas counties can all sign off on a final map this year. Once the three parties sign off, the reserves map would return to the state for approval.
If that happens, urban reserves would be the first place the Metro Council would look for growth boundary expansions – but again, only where the city that wants to grow there can show it's ready for growth, and that the growth advances regional goals.
How we grow is a public conversation.
The whole point of Oregon’s approach to growth is that growth is something we can all talk about and help shape. At several points through 2018, there will be opportunities for the public to comment on proposals and testify at hearings. To make sure you are up to speed with all of it, subscribe to Metro News or visit the project web page.
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2018 growth management decision
Find key information, documents and timelines for the 2018 growth decision.