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Blueprint for land use takes shape

Lawmakers in Salem are rushing to complete a so-called land-use grand bargain before the 2014 Legislature ends on March 5.

Hearings on the agreement were expected this week. It is intended to resolve the uncertainty produced by the recent Oregon Court of Appeals ruling that rejected a 50-year land-use plan for the Portland area. Approving the grand bargain could be one of the most significant accomplishments of the short legislative session. Failing to do so would undermine development plans that have been in the works for years in Beaverton and Hillsboro, and would reinforce the impression that Oregon’s vaunted land-use planning system is turning into a bureaucratic quagmire.

A breakthrough was reached Sunday after days of intense negotiations involving state and local officials, conservationists and farmers. It is intended to ratify portions of previously approved urban and rural reserves and subsequent urban growth boundary expansions based upon them.

“It was an opportunity for everyone to start over — a legislatively convened out of court settlement,” said state Rep. Brian Clem (D-Salem), who led the negotiations.

The agreement applies only to Washington County. Details are expected to be released this week in Salem.

The agreement only applies to Washington County. Details are expected to be released this week in Salem.

“I believe we have a framework for a deal. The (court) decision created uncertainty, and the agreement is intended to preserve both the best farmland and the best economic development opportunities,” says state Rep. Ben Unger (D-Hillsboro), who was active in the negotiations.

“This is a good compromise for agriculture, residential and industrial interests in the county, and brings certainty to important decisions,” says Washington County Chair Andy Duyck, who participated in the negotiations.

Even Jason Miner, executive director of 1000 Friends of

Oregon, agrees.

“We have historically opposed the Legislature making land-use decisions, but this is an exception situation and a chance to restore the balance to the land-use planning system that the Legislature intended,” Miner says.

The negotiations involved all the parties in the dispute, including state legislators and representatives of Metro, all three counties, and such land-use watchdogs as 1000 Friends of Oregon and Save Helvetia, a grassroots group fighting to preserve farmland in rural Washington County. Also present was Richard Whitman, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber’s natural resources policy director.

A bill in the House Rules Committee will be used as the vehicle for the compromise. Public hearings will be held on House Bill 4078 before the committee and, potentially, the full Legislature votes on it.

Adding to the pressure, legislators must reach consensus during heated elections in Washington County, where the court decision threatens to stall development plans that have been in the works for years in Beaverton and Hillsboro. There, land-use issues could shift the balance of power on the county commission this year.

Within hours of the decision being released on the morning of Feb. 20, two challengers were using it in their campaigns. Activist Allen Amabisca and former Oregon 1st Congressional District Rep. Elizabeth Furse issued statements blaming it on pro-development county leaders. Amabisca is running against Duyck, and Furse is challenging Washington County Commissioner Bob Terry.

The court ruling concerned urban and rural reserves approved by Metro and the state Land Conservation and Development Commission in 2011.

Metro officials asked the Legislature for approval to designate the reserves in 2007. The idea was to add certainty to the land-use planning process by identifying where growth could and could not occur for the next 50 years. The Legislature agreed, and Metro spent the next three years working with Washington, Multnomah and Clackamas counties to identify the reserves.

The final plan was adopted in 2011 and quickly challenged in the Oregon Court of Appeals.

Later that year, Metro also approved a series of urban growth boundary decisions. They were all within the previously approved urban reserves. The majority — approximately 2,000 acres — were in Washington County. They included two areas being planned for residential development — South Cooper Mountain in Beaverton and South Hillsboro, which Hillsboro plans to annex when the planning is complete. The boundary also was expanded to include a new industrial area called North Hillsboro.

The boundary expansions also were challenged in the appeals court. They essentially were invalidated when the court rejected the urban and rural reserves plan in a Feb. 20 ruling, in spite of the work being done by Beaverton and Hillsboro.

Providing certainty

Despite the focus on Washington County, the court ruled mistakes were made in the other counties, too. Multnomah County did not justify designating much of its undeveloped land between Portland and Beaverton as rural reserves. It included a 62-acre parcel adjacent to the North Bethany residential area that the owners want to divide within their family. And the court found Clackamas County did not explain why the Stafford area should be designated an urban reserve when it already is facing growing congestion problems.

Legislators already were talking about intervening in the controversy before the court issued its ruling. State Rep. John Davis (R-Wilsonville) introduced a bill in the 2014 Legislature to ratify the boundary expansions. Unger was talking about ratifying some of them but not others. Rep. Clem prepared a map of the region where compromises could be made. The idea was strongly opposed by Metro and the Washington County Commission. But, according to Clem, all that changed when the appeals court remanded the reserves back to Metro and invalidated them.

Clem’s role in the negotiations is surprising, considering his district is outside the region. A fifth-generation Oregonian, he was first elected to the House from Salem in 2006. But Clem said he has long been interested in land-use planning issues, and personally experienced the struggle between maintaining farmland in the face of development pressures after marrying into a Hood River agricultural family. He chairs the House Rural Communities Committee.

Clem says his desire to find a land-use compromise this session stems from his experiences during the 2011 Legislature, when the House was evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.

“Up until then, I had been very partisan. But in 2011, the only way to get anything accomplished was to work with the other side. I learned that accommodating different points of view leads to better results. It was a transformational experience,” Clem says.

Davis missed the negotiations because he was on paternity leave from the session after the birth of his second son. He returned this week, just in time for the final efforts to pass his amended bill before the session ends.

“It will be a real accomplishment if it passes. It will bring certainty to Washington County for many years to come,”

Davis says.