The Oregon Court of Appeals threw a wrench into most of the region's urban and rural reserves Thursday, saying Washington County didn't do enough to justify blocking development on more than 100,000 acres.
In sending the rural reserves designations back to Washington County and Metro, the court said the urban reserves must also be re-assessed, turning upside-down the foundation of the Portland region's growth strategy since 2010.
In a 126-page ruling, the court rejected most of the challenges to the landmark urban and rural reserves agreements, reached between Metro and Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties in 2010 and 2011. It accepted that reserves were legal, and that Metro had the authority to designate reserves beyond its jurisdictional boundary.
But in three key areas – one in each county – the court found problems with Metro and the counties' designations, and with the Oregon Land Conservation and Development Commission's acceptance of those designations.
In Clackamas County, the court said that the state didn't explain why the Stafford area was set aside as an urban reserve in the face of a forecast of overwhelming traffic in the area by 2035.
The court also said that Multnomah County failed to meet its legal requirements to consider whether areas of the Tualatin Mountains, between Portland and Beaverton, should be rural reserves. The county designated much of the undeveloped land in that area as rural reserves.
But it's the Washington County remand that is the most problematic. The Tualatin Valley is where the reserves battle was most hotly contested – land conservation advocates fought to protect just about every acre of farmland for development; cities and the county argued that the flat land near cities made the most sense for industrial growth in the next half century.
But it wasn't the designation of urban reserves north of Hillsboro that undid the Washington County plan. Instead, it was Washington County's sweeping designation of rural reserves – across almost all of the Tualatin Valley – that knocked the urban reserves out. In fact, the court didn't even consider the legality of the urban reserves designations because it couldn't understand what factors Washington County used in designating rural reserves.
"Because the designation of urban and rural reserves are interrelated – particularly where Foundation Agricultural Land is involved – on remand, LCDC must, in turn, remand Washington County's reserves designation as a whole for reconsideration," said Chief Judge Rick Haselton in his ruling. "Further, it follows that… LCDC must remand the entire submittal to Metro and the counties so that they can ultimately assess whether any new joint designation, in its entirety, satisfies that standard."
It wasn't clear early Thursday exactly what will happen going forward. A spokeswoman for Washington County said Chair Andy Duyck would not have a comment until mid-Friday. Metro attorneys declined to comment on the ruling until Thursday afternoon, when they are scheduled to brief the Metro Council.
The ruling included some key victories for Metro – the court found the reserves program, overall, to be legal, and ruled against the owners of the Langdon Farms Club near Canby, which argued that Metro couldn't designate rural reserves beyond the boundaries of its service district.
It also rejected a claim by Portland resident Carol Chesarek, who said that too much land was designated as an urban reserve.
The urban reserves process was created by the Legislature in 2007, as a way to get away from an old, cumbersome system for expanding the urban growth boundary that relied on soil quality to decide where to add land for development. That system led to the hilly Damascus area being added to the boundary in the early 2000s – a decision that still flummoxes planners today as infrastructure costs and lack of local support prevent new development.
The urban reserves were to be the areas first targeted for UGB expansions through 2060; rural reserves were to be off limits to development in that time.
After countless meetings, negotiations and debates, Metro and the counties agreed on reserves designations in 2010, and sent their plan to the Oregon Land Conservation and Development Commission for review. LCDC accepted most of the reserves, with the exception of some urban reserves north of Cornelius.
In 2011, the Metro Council and Washington County Commission met in a marathon session to designate new urban reserves, north of U.S. 26 and west of Helvetia Road, to make up for the lost land for development north of Cornelius. That drew the ire of activists from the Helvetia area, who said there shouldn't be any new development north of the freeway.
Later that year, the Metro Council expanded the UGB onto urban reserves for the first time, adding land west of Tigard, west of Beaverton and south and north of Hillsboro to the urban growth boundary. Those expansions have been held up in court.
Developers of the South Hillsboro area had hoped the Legislature would intervene and simply accept the UGB expansion, bypassing the courts, but last week, some legislators pushed for a plan that would legislatively designate urban and rural reserves in Washington County instead. The plan would quash development on much of the urban reserve lands north of Hillsboro, setting land south of U.S. 26 to Evergreen Parkway as rural reserve and blocking it from the industrial growth Washington County had hoped for in the decades to come.
Reserves 'grand bargain' would push process over the finish line, legislator says (Feb. 14, 2014)