The Portland region's agreement to plan for the next 50 years of growth was mostly upheld by the Oregon Land Conservation and Development Commission on Friday, but a key part was sent back for further review and the most controversial element was rejected altogether.
The decision cast doubt upon whether the region will be able to expand its urban growth boundary in the coming months.
The commission was reviewing the urban and rural reserves proposal between Metro and Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties. After four days of hearings last week, the commission seemed poised to accept most of the reserves plan, but had questions about urban reserve proposals in Washington County.
In a three-hour hearing Oct. 29 at the Metro Regional Center, the commission accepted most of the urban and rural reserves proposal, which designated about 28,000 acres of urban reserves in the Portland Metro area and set aside about 267,000 acres of rural reserves that can't be urbanized through 2060.
But the commission made some key changes in Washington County, telling Metro and the county that a proposed 624-acre urban reserve north of Cornelius was unacceptable. Commissioners also said part of a 508-acre urban reserve north of Forest Grove needed a second look.
Because they sent back as many as 1,100 acres for potential future growth, commissioners gave Washington County the opportunity to find new urban reserves to offset the loss; because rural reserves can't be touched through 2060, the commission remanded Washington County's rural reserves for a second look.
"We should give them the opportunity to decide whether and where to replace that, and my fear is if you accept the rural reserves, you've severely limited their ability to find a place," said Commissioner Hanley Jenkins.
Council Creek turned down
Commissioner Greg Macpherson was the most vocal about his opposition to Cornelius' proposed northern urban reserve, saying the proposed urban reserve's boundaries of Cornelius-Schefflin Road, Long Road and Dairy Creek were not as effective of an urban edge as Council Creek.
But commissioners' bigger concern was a lack of evidence in the record showing that Washington County and Metro sufficiently considered the area as a rural reserve.
The thought of urbanizing the area troubled Commissioner Christine Pellett.
"I look at farmland as not just something down in the Willamette, but I believe Washington County farmland is actually a natural treasure," she said. "If we look in the future at climate issues, it's pretty critical land."
The commission wasn't united in completely turning it down. Some commissioners, including Bart Eberwein, wanted to give Washington County a chance to give a second look at making it an urban reserve. He wasn't convinced the creek was a necessary boundary for urbanization.
"In a perfect world maybe you have these natural features as edges and boundaries, but as Greg was talking, I was picturing places that I sort of like where you can see where urban stops and rural starts and it's not a creek," Eberwein said. "It's sort of like saying we're all in this together. I don't think it's an all bad thing to have boundaries be sort of our handiwork."
But the area was rejected as a possible urban reserve, leaving it to Washington County and Metro to decide whether to leave it undesignated or designate all or part of it as a rural reserve.
Cornelius Development Director Richard Meyer called the decision outrageous.
"I hope the whole thing falls apart," Meyer said. "What can a small community do?"
Forest Grove ditched
The commission was similarly reluctant to allow Forest Grove to have an urban reserve north to Purdin Road, jumping a narrow tributary of Council Creek that runs neatly west to east from Thatcher Road to Highway 47.
Pellett said she was worried about the way farming would be impacted by jumping the tributary.
"I am concerned about how agriculture functions north of that line if this is the permanent line," she said.
Jenkins added that he couldn't find any particular reason the urban reserve should extend up to Purdin Road.
"I think the justification is wanting, for why that boundary was selected," he said.
Hillsboro triangle accepted
Last for discussion was a 2,712-acre triangle between Hillsboro and U.S. 26, an area targeted for industrial development. Commissioners said Washington County provided better information on why that area shouldn't be a rural reserve, and concerns about what the best boundary for growth were offset by the significance of the freeway.
"I think Highway 26 makes a damn good boundary," said Commission Chair John VanLandingham. "The farm bureau and the Oregon Department of Agriculture have raised some concerns about the northern part of 8A (the triangle), close to undesignated areas, and leapfrogging 26 to get at those for expansion. It doesn't look very efficient to do that."
Worrix said she was sad to see an area so large eyed for conversion, and while it would be nice to use McKay Creek as a northern boundary instead of a manmade boundary, that wasn't a factor in this particular discussion.
The commission debated sending the area back to Washington County and Metro so the two could strengthen their findings ahead of an anticipated appeal, but decided to accept it outright.
Metro Councilor Kathryn Harrington, who represents western Washington County and also served as the council's point person on the reserves negotiations, said the region's partners in the process have a lot to be proud of.
"Do we have this wrinkle at the end? Yes. Am I surprised? No. Do I remain hopeful? Absolutely," she said. "This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for us to manage urban growth in our area that protects farm and forest land and natural features and serves all and each of our communities well over a long term."
Mary Kyle McCurdy, attorney for 1000 Friends of Oregon, was at her daughter's college's family weekend and had only heard bits and pieces of the ruling early Friday evening. But she gave a preliminary response – "That sounds like a victory for agriculture."
The view was not so rosy from the westside. Washington County Commissioner Andy Duyck, who will take over as county chair next year, said he would reserve offering his strong feelings until after he reads the record of the commission's decision.
"I do regret that LCDC chose to partially remand," Duyck wrote in an e-mail. "One of the purposes of the reserves process was to let local governments have a say in where they grow over the next 50 years. It looks to me like local governments only get a say in it if the conclusion conforms to a predetermined outcome. This feels like a 'bait and switch.'"
A call to the home of Washington County Chair Tom Brian, the county's lead negotiator on reserves, was not returned. A county spokesman said Brian was out of the office on medical leave.
Even though the commission accepted most of Metro's urban reserves, including most of the urban reserves in Washington County, the remand of rural reserves would make it unlikely the Metro Council will vote on an urban growth boundary expansion this year.
Because urban and rural reserves have to be agreed upon simultaneously, and Washington County doesn't have any rural reserves, the county also doesn't have any urban reserves to expand upon.
Metro was heading towards saying the region needed to expand the urban growth boundary to accommodate about 15,000 new housing units. But the region has the option of saying it can meet at least half of its 20-year need for residential growth with new efficiency measures in the existing urban growth boundary, and putting off an expansion decision for a year.
Washington County and Metro now have to figure out to what degree they want to re-examine their rural reserves. State commissioners mentioned several times that they were uneasy about how much land Washington County locked up in rural reserves, leaving little margin for error in the form of undesignated lands to grow on if the urban reserves are all used up.
The county can't hold any public hearings on land use decisions until March, so it will likely be some time before any formal decisions are made. But adding more undesignated land, as the commission seemed to want, would put Washington County into a tough spot – conservation interests fought most of the undesignated lands the county did include, and areas that would be less controversial to un-designate as rural reserves are in difficult-to-develop areas like the Chehalem Mountains or West Hills.
"I don't know that the state agencies had to experience the pressure from our urban communities, the agriculture community and natural resources advocates like we did," Harrington said. "We felt a lot of pressure from the agricultural community, from the natural resources community and the urban community to protect as much foundation farmland as possible."
But Harrington emphasized that she felt the commission gave a fair and thorough look at the package, and the acceptance of most of it was a positive for the region.
"It's a very high bar. This is historic," she said. "No one else in the nation has tried this. It's pretty unprecedented to have an estimated 60 percent population growth over that 50 year time period and only expand your urban area by no more than 11 percent."