After months of input from community members, the Metro Council last week voiced its support to continue developing a potential parks and nature bond measure for voters to consider in 2019 to protect clean water, restore fish and wildlife habitat and connect people with nature.
At a Nov. 13 work session, councilors supported further studying four areas a potential bond could support: regional land acquisition, improving public access to nature for people, “local share” money for local park providers and capital grants for community nature projects.
“Typically, we’ve had a large percentage going to regional land acquisition, a very important component,” Metro Councilor Sam Chase said. “I cannot imagine that not continuing. But how to balance that with providing access to people, I think that has really stepped up. I see a significant shift there as something I would be enthusiastic about having more discussion on.”
Councilors also reiterated their support for using a racial equity lens to develop a potential bond measure, in line with Metro’s Strategic Plan to Advance Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.
Voters approved Metro parks and natural areas bond measures in 1995 and 2006 as well as two local-option levies in 2013 and 2016 to care for the land. The Metro Council is considering a potential third bond measure as spending from the 2006 bond winds down.
A quarter century of voter investments have allowed Metro – on behalf of the public – to protect clean water, restore fish and wildlife habitat and provide opportunities to experience nature close to home across more than 17,000 acres of parks, trails and natural areas.
Developing a framework
At the work session, councilors also received an update on the first phase of community engagement, which is wrapping up. A 25-member stakeholder table representing conservation, recreation, agricultural, nonprofit, business, local government, neighborhood association, Indigenous and culturally specific interests has met four times since the summer to shape the potential measure. Participants also went on tours of parks and natural areas across greater Portland to see firsthand and learn more about previous bond-supported investments.
About 100 people, mostly from traditionally marginalized communities, also shared their thoughts at two community forums in late September.
“We have heard broad support for the work currently being done,” Metro Chief Operating Officer Martha Bennett told councilors.
Bennett is gathering all of the input to develop a recommended framework for councilors to consider at a Dec. 11 work session. The framework will broadly shape a second phase of community engagement in early 2019 that will help to further refine the four areas of potential investment. For instance, community members will shape and decide on areas to target for land acquisitions, ways to incorporate equity in programs, and criteria for local share money to local parks providers.
A new council president and two new councilors will join the Metro Council in January, and the new council next year will ultimately decide the size and content of a potential bond measure.
Several members of the current council voiced their strong desire to ask voters to renew the existing bond measure in light of other pressing regional concerns, such as the affordable housing measure voters just approved Nov. 6 and a potential transportation funding package in 2020. Renewing the bond measure at its current rate of 19 cents per $1,000 in assessed value would not raise taxes.
Councilor Bob Stacey said he would oppose any potential bond measure that would raise taxes.
“It’s politically a whole lot easier if we just continue the same tax rate,” Metro Council President Tom Hughes said.
Three themes emerged in recent conversations: continue to emphasize clean water, take care of what Metro already has, and put greater emphasis on providing access to nature for people and supporting community projects with Nature in Neighborhoods capital grants.
Community members also voiced support for prioritizing equity in a potential bond, such as requests from the Indigenous community to expand the criteria for land acquisitions to include culturally significant lands, plants and lamprey habitat.
Brandon Cruz, a field organizer with the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, sits on the stakeholder table and would like to see a potential bond measure focus more on providing parks and nature in dense, urban neighborhoods. More sidewalks, bike trails and other improvements could also improve access, he said.
“I’d like to see more community projects be implemented and invested in communities that haven’t been as involved in parks, and more amenities,” he said. “Community events, murals, public events and other structures allow people to feel like they’re part of the space, like it’s a safe place.”
Several stakeholder table participants said the group’s diversity – in race, in the interests they represent and in other ways – contributes to a richer discussion.
“It’s changed how people see things. Having that input is an amazing way of doing this,” Bertony Faustin, owner of Abbey Creek Vineyard, said as he looked around at the stakeholder table meeting Nov. 9. “What I appreciate about Metro is that they’re intentional.”
Metro, which also sets the urban growth boundary for greater Portland, needs to strike the right balance between protecting parks and natural areas, agricultural land, and forecasting and designating land for growth, he said.
It’s important for Metro to keep in mind that every community is unique, and different local jurisdictions have different needs, said Pam Treece, executive director of the Westside Economic Alliance and a commissioner-elect to the Washington County board.
The stakeholder table isn’t without tension. Some participants want a potential bond measure to raise more money with an increased tax rate, while others adamantly oppose asking voters to raise taxes. The discussion is a healthy one, Treece said.
“Bond advisory groups should be doing this, and we’re doing it the right way,” she said.