The Metro Council unanimously accepted the draft Urban Growth Report Thursday, moving the conversation about the region's growth forward and into 2015.
The move wasn't without controversy, as some suburban leaders said the report overestimated the amount of growth that would come in the form of new apartments in the Portland city limits.
But economists and planning experts told the Metro Council on Thursday that the report's methodology was sound, and the report was an appropriate basis for next year's conversation about the urban growth boundary.
Sheila Martin, the director of the Portland State University Institute of Metropolitan Studies and of PSU's Population Research Center, said the forecast is reasonable and the methodology is sound.
"I've read the report, and as an economist and director of the demographic research center, I find the report to be methodologically sound, impartial and transparent," she said.
Thursday's vote was mostly a procedural move – Oregon's land use laws required Metro to take some action by the end of 2014, if only to put off the actual decision-making to next year.
For the next year, the Metro Council and staff have to finalize the report and study whether to expand the region's urban growth boundary. By law, Metro has to have 20 years worth of developable land within its urban growth boundary.
In the report, Metro planners and economists attempt to forecast the Portland region's growth for the next 20 years. They then look at how much growth can be accommodated within the region's urban growth boundary, basing their guess on both locally-adopted plans and market realities.
It's the last part that has drawn the most criticism. The draft Urban Growth Report suggests that 60 percent of the region's new homes between now and 2035 will be apartments, townhomes and condos.
That would bring the mix of housing in the region from 67 percent single-family, 33 percent multi-family today to 60 percent single-family, 40 percent multi-family by 2035. A huge chunk of that multi-family apartment growth would be in Portland, according to the draft report.
Some suburban officials argue the apartment boom underway in Portland is not a permanent trend, but a blip, and that people will still choose to live in single-family homes if they can afford it – even if it means commuting from Newberg, Canby or Clark County because that's where single-family homes are being built.
"Demand for multi-family housing may likely be lower than projected, with a corresponding increased demand for single-family homes," wrote a group of about two dozen of the region's suburban mayors in a letter to the Metro Council.
Developer Gordon Root, who has been spearheading the controversial Gales Creek Terrace development in Forest Grove, said he has customers buying homes as far away as Silverton in order to commute to jobs in Wilsonville and Tualatin. He said it's difficult to get denser developments approved in the Portland region.
"You need to expand the Boone Bridge if you're not going to expand the boundary," Root said, referring to the Interstate 5 bridge at Wilsonville. "I feel that 4,000 acres is slightly under what's needed. I would say, go with 6,000 acres a year in order to provide the affordability of houses and choice we need to develop and be prosperous."
He was referring to an estimate from Metro staff, that if half the region's new homes in the future are single-family, the region would need to expand its UGB by 4,000 acres – an area the size of Forest Grove – every six years.
See also: Research paper on region's growth draws criticism (Dec. 4, 2014)
Metro officials argue that UGB expansions are costly to taxpayers, and that growth inside the existing UGB is not only preferred by the market, but cheaper for the public.
Robert Liberty, a former Metro Councilor and director of PSU's Urban Sustainability Accelerator, said the Portland region has been successful because of its urban growth management.
He pointed to a Colliers International report that said the Portland region has had the highest GDP growth in the U.S. from 2008 to 2013.
"You have created a region, through your efforts, that is now distinctive and known globally, and the old debate between quality of life and the economy is over," Liberty said. "It's a strategy. It’s the key to success. Don't kill the golden goose you've helped to create."
He said Metro's growth estimates have been remarkably on target, pointing out that the 1994 estimate of 2,196,000 residents in the region by 2015 was nearly spot-on. The region's estimated 2013 population was 2,103,000.
Wilsonville Mayor Tim Knapp is calling for a closer review of the growth estimates, pointing out that his city has been successful at converting UGB expansion areas into development.
"Our experience is that the urban growth report underestimates Wilsonville's projected growth rates," Knapp said. Wilsonville is seeking a UGB expansion near Advance Road.
Knapp's argument was enough to raise questions about the 2015 work for Metro Councilor Craig Dirksen, whose district includes Wilsonville.
"At present, it (the UGR) doesn't show a need for more residential land in the next 20 years, and that concerns me," Dirksen said. "I'm very interested over the next year in hearing more about the thoughtful planning that communities like Wilsonville and Sherwood are developing for new residential areas. I know we plan to examine the real capacity of Damascus more carefully next year, and that we will be entering a more robust discussion with the City of Portland about their forecasted rate of development and redevelopment potential."
Still, Dirksen said, Thursday's vote was to accept a draft report, not to finalize a decision.
Metro Councilor Bob Stacey questioned those who said Thursday's decision set the UGB in stone, criticizing an editorial in the Portland Tribune that said as much.
"There is no recommendation about whether or not to expand the urban growth boundary in the Urban Growth Report," Stacey said. "We have information we're accepting. We need more information."
Some of that information is how Portland, which is adding 5,000 new homes in a boom year this year, expects to add an average of 6,000 new homes for each of the next 20 years.
"We need to hear why the city is confident that level of development, year over year, will occur," Stacey said.
Stacey wasn't the only critic of the media at Thursday's meeting.
"I'm somewhat surprised at the number of people in this region who seem to misunderstand what it is we're doing here," said Metro Council President Tom Hughes. "It is a forecast, not a plan. When you read in the newspaper and other places that the UGR is Metro's plan to increase density in the region, that's wrong in about as many places as a sentence can actually be wrong."
The Metro Council has until the end of 2015 to figure out exactly what's just right.