Economic and demographic analysis has, for nearly a year, said an urban growth boundary expansion probably won't be needed in 2015.
But even if the analysis is wrong – and an expansion is needed – it may be painstakingly difficult to accomplish.
An urban growth boundary expansion in 2015 might mean diving deep into the weeds of Oregon land use law, Metro staff said Tuesday, thanks to ongoing legal challenges to the region's urban and rural reserves system.
At a Metro Council retreat, staff laid out a series of options for this year's look at the region's UGB, which must, by law, have enough land within it for 20 years of growth.
Last year, several economists and demographers who study the region's growth say there's likely enough land inside the UGB to meet that 20-year demand, and no expansion is needed.
Their analysis was reflected in the region's Urban Growth Report, which the Metro Council accepted as a draft last year.
But the Metro Council is set to study whether two assumptions made in the growth forecast – a certain level of growth in unplanned Damascus, and expectations for multi-family housing growth in Portland – reflect a likely future.
If expectations for apartments, townhomes and condos in Portland, or for any growth in Damascus, turn out to be too rosy, it's possible the boundary may need to be expanded to accommodate two decades of growth, staff said.
But that presents another problem – even if a UGB expansion were warranted, it would be hard to find a place to expand to.
Only one city is positioning itself for an expansion – Wilsonville is looking to grow on its eastern edge, near Advance Road. The Metro Council requires cities to come up with finance and development plans before it considers a UGB expansion in an area, and Wilsonville is the only government to date to move toward that requirement.
But legal challenges to the reserves designations drag on in Multnomah and Clackamas counties. In Clackamas County, West Linn and Tualatin challenged the designation of the Stafford Basin as urban reserves. Also challenging the designation were the owners of the Langdon Farms Golf Club, on the French Prairie south of Wilsonville.
Langdon Farms was set as a rural reserve by Clackamas County and Metro in 2010; its owners, brothers Chris and Tom Maletis, hope to see that designation changed.
Even if the issues with West Linn and Tualatin could be resolved, challenges from the Maletis brothers could last for years – meaning there are no designated urban reserves in Clackamas County until court cases are settled.
That would, in turn, leave Metro to use soil designations for any urban growth boundary expansion. Legally, the council would be forced to expand in an area that has poor soil for farming and forestry – think hills, ravines, and rocky fields. That's what led to the 2002 UGB expansion in Damascus that continues to vex planners, developers and local residents to this day.
"The Metro Council is fully aware of where we've ended up from previous decisions based on soil hierarchy," said Metro deputy planning director John Williams.
A UGB expansion based on soil quality would make it difficult, if not impossible, to legally justify a UGB expansion in Wilsonville's preferred area.
All of that, though, assumes that there could even be a case for expanding the UGB under Oregon law. And that gets into the likelihood of the forecast that most of the region's new housing construction will be multifamily instead of single-family homes.
That forecast, Metro officials say, is based on cities' adopted land use plans and the likelihood of development.
Critics have questioned that assumption, saying the ongoing surge in multifamily construction in the region is a short-term anomaly, not a long-term trend.
Among the topics worth exploring in 2015, Metro Council President Tom Hughes said, is whether the region should consider designating single-family housing as a subset of housing demand, with its own 20-year supply. That, Hughes said, could be similar to how the region identifies large-lot industrial land as a specific need that must be met within the UGB.
Councilor Bob Stacey, a veteran land use attorney and the former director of land conservation advocacy group 1000 Friends of Oregon, said it's possible – but may be unnecessary.
"We have a lot of vacant single-family residential zoned lands in the urban growth boundary, and we're still working to get services to them," Stacey said. The market, Stacey said, isn't rushing to turn those lots over.
After nearly three hours of discussion, there was no consensus on how to address the 2015 UGB expansion. The council still awaits clarity on Clackamas County's urban reserves. It still has to look at Portland and Damascus' growth projections, among others in the region.
And that led to another possible path forward for the council in this decision – to take its time on deciding the UGB, pushing a decision into 2016 or beyond.
The council could also opt to not expand the boundary this round, but have another UGB review cycle as early as 2017 – after, they hope, legal challenges to reserves are settled. Additional growth could also support a legal case for expanding the boundary – something communities eager for a UGB expansion might find preferable.
Any path forward will be heavily vetted by local elected officials, particularly members of the Metro Policy Advisory Committee, who usually have plenty to say about UGB decisions.
In the meantime, the regional government will continue to scout the horizon, plenty of options in front of it but with no sure bet on exactly where to go.
Note: This version has been updated to reflect Wilsonville's interest in a UGB expansion.