The Portland region's landmark plan for decades of future growth passed its second state review Friday, nearly a year after the Oregon Land Conservation and Development Commission rejected parts of an initial proposal.
With a 6-0 vote, the commission said Metro and Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties followed state law when designating urban and rural reserves for the region.
The commission is the first state panel to review reserves. Appeals likely to follow the commission's approval will go to the Oregon Court of Appeals.
Metro and the counties designated about 28,256 acres of urban reserves, areas that will be first targeted for urban growth boundary expansions through the next five decades. More than 266,000 acres were set aside as rural reserves, land the Metro Council can't touch for urban growth boundary expansions through 2060.
The commission's two-day hearing on reserves followed an October 2010 vote to reject some of the urban reserves proposed for Washington County. County and Metro leaders met in March to make changes to the plan, in an effort to keep roughly the same number of acres in urban reserves and craft a proposal that the commission would accept.
It was unclear Metro and the counties had done that. Several commissioners said they were unhappy with a new urban reserve area north of U.S. 26 and west of Helvetia Road, added to the urban reserves after an area north of Cornelius was rejected by the commission.
"It looks like a trade-off," said Commissioner Marilyn Worrix. "We didn't ask for a trade-off."
The area extends north to West Union Road. In arguing for the area to be included in urban reserves, Washington County planning director Brent Curtis compared it to other parts of West Union Road that serve as the urban growth boundary, comparisons which drew near-incredulous looks from the land conservation advocates sitting behind him – and a rebuke from Commissioner Greg Macpherson.
"To my mind, Highway 26 is a better edge," Macpherson said.
The commissioners' concerns came after a full day of testimony Thursday, mostly from opponents of the plan, whose complaints about the proposal ranged from the rural reserves near Cornelius to whether the correct stream north of Forest Grove was identified as the true course of Council Creek.
Farmers, particularly, were concerned that new urban reserves on land they use for crops would lead to the land being sold from underneath them, or whether potential new neighbors could complain about farming until they were forced to leave.
"We are worse off in this process than we ever were in the other process," said Bob Vanderzanden, a representative of the Washington County Farm Bureau. "They co-opted far more land than what they ever intended to use."
Save Helvetia leader Cherry Amabisca also spoke about protecting farmland, one of the goals of the reserves process. She urged the commission to use U.S. 26 as the northern barrier for urban reserves.
But her comments about protrusions onto farm land drew a pointed question from Land Conservation and Development Commission Chair John VanLandingham.
"One might describe Hillsboro itself as a large protrusion onto foundation farmland – on both sides of 26," VanLandingham. "How would you respond to that?"
Amabisca responded with hyperbole before arguing that Hillsboro already had ample land for industrial growth – land the city has not made the most of, she said.
"You can extend it all the way out to the coast," she said. "They do not need this. They have not done a good job managing what they have had."
But in arguments on Friday, Metro attorney Dick Benner said the new process was far better than what the region has experienced until now.
In the 30 to 40 years leading to the adoption of Oregon's land use program, Benner said, 150,000 acres of farmland was lost in the three county area.
"We're talking now about 50 years, and if it's all urbanized, we would lose 5 percent," Benner said of the 28,256 acres in urban reserves. "If anything, you might think we balanced it too far on the side of agriculture."
Commissioners didn't go that far in their explanations for accepting the proposal. But they did seem to feel the proposal was as good as it was going to get.
"We set out to provide some predictability. We set out to provide some additional protections for agricultural lands and we set out to try a new process that would provide for healthier decision making," Worrix said. "I think we have accomplished a great deal."
VanLandingham said the decision would have consequences, some of which would be negative for some people. But he signed off on the proposal, which could, he said, lead to other communities following Portland's lead in creating reserves.
"Everybody here agreed the best lands were being lost or utilized for livable communities," VanLandingham said, "but I can't find that I disagree, under our standard of review, with Washington County's or Metro's decisions."
Washington County Chair Andy Duyck said he was nervous, at times, as to whether the commission would move the plan forward. But, he said, the plan was a plus for those who want to preserve farmland.
"Even though it has its flaws, it was a good compromise," Duyck said. "It's going to set the tone for the next 50 years, as we all hoped it would do."
Mary Kyle McCurdy, an attorney for land conservation advocacy group 1000 Friends of Oregon, was not as congratulatory about the farmland being preserved.
"The standard for protecting lands as rural reserves is, is it under threat of urbanization?" she said. "Most of those lands are under no threat of urbanization. It's misleading to say they've done this wonderful thing when no one expects they're going to be under threat of urbanization."
Metro Councilor Kathryn Harrington, who was the council's liaison for the reserves process and has been working on the program for nearly four years, disagreed.
"It's a wonderful thing for the region, and it's a wonderful thing for our surrounding rural communities and property owners," Harrington said. "They now have certainty for their land moving forward for 50 years, and our urban communities have a better idea of what kind of area, should we need to expand the urban growth boundary, we would be looking for. It's a pleasure to have this milestone closed and behind us."
One more milestone remains – survival of legal challenges. Once Land Conservation and Development Commission issues a written order from Friday's decision, potential appellants have 21 days to file an appeal in the courts.
McCurdy and others said they had yet to decide whether they would appeal the decision.