The governor of Oregon may have been a little ahead of his time, speaking out against growth and for planning:
coastal "condomania" and the ravenous rampage of suburbia in the
Willamette Valley all threaten to mock Oregon's status as the
environmental model for the nation," warned the governor. "We are
in dire need of a state land use policy, new subdivision laws, and
new standards for planning and zoning by cities and counties. The
interest of Oregon for today and in the future must be protected
from the grasping wastrels of the land."
said Oregon Governor Tom McCall 21 years ago. Later that year,
McCall signed into law one of the most far-reaching land-use
planning strategies ever attempted, beginning a process that has
been watched and emulated by states throughout the country. In a
grand experiment, Oregon was using the authority of state
government to require local communities to plan their growth and
Oregon's law, which requires every
county and municipality to write land-use plans that meet state
standards, has not been an unqualified success. Among its ambitious
goals are the protection of agricultural lands and open space and
provision for affordable housing and adequate transportation. The
state law hasn't stopped newcomers from pouring in, and Oregon's
counties still allow the subdivision of agricultural lands. But
experts agree the law has kept Oregon's cities from sprawling into
To limit sprawl, the state
looks 20 years ahead and projects reasonable population growth for
cities and towns, which then must designate urban growth boundaries
based on the projections. The boundaries tend to result in denser
development within cities and towns, and less paving over of farm
"Since 1973, we've cut
the amount of agricultural land being converted to urban use from
30,000 acres a year to 2,000 acres a year," says Kevin Kasowski,
communication director for 1000 Friends of Oregon, a group that
formed in 1975 to monitor implementation of the state law. "Oregon
just doesn't have the leapfrog development- the Wal-Marts going up
outside urban areas - like you do in other states."
Despite the successes, some counties and towns,
especially in the rural eastern part of the state, have balked.
Finding allies in the real estate industry and the state
legislature, rural interests tried to gut the planning law with
ballot initiatives in 1976, 1978, and 1982. Voters statewide
solidly rejected each attempt.
The pattern of
rebellion has been repeated more recently in Washington state,
where secession movements have erupted in some rural counties in
reaction to a statewide planning law (see story next
In Oregon, some counties took a decade to
draw up comprehensive plans, despite the threat of the state
withholding their share of state revenues. Even now, Kasowski says,
counties often approve rural subdivisions that run counter to the
farming and forestry zones are building single houses that don't
have anything to do with agriculture," says Kasowski. "That's where
counties do the worst. It's hard for them to say no." A combination
of fairly vague standards and an uninformed public allows the
problem to continue, he adds.
public awareness, 1000 Friends of Oregon has spent the last three
years organizing and training local residents around the state on
the ins and outs of the planning law. So far, citizens' groups have
formed in two counties - Jackson and Deschutes - to watchdog local
Kasowski says state land-use laws
like Oregon's can help communities better direct growth, but there
is an irony - better planning winds up attracting more newcomers.
In fact, statewide planning has made the state's cities more
attractive than ever. "If you want to stay small," says Kasowski,
"don't look at Oregon."
Other states in the
West can still look to the Oregon model for effective planning
strategies, Kasowski says. "Urban growth boundaries are something
that should have happened along Colorado's Front Range 20 years
individualism in Colorado
Two decades ago, about
the time Oregon was drawing up its law, Colorado took a
half-hearted step in the same direction of state-directed planning.
Led by then-state representative Dick Lamm, D, the Colorado
legislature created a state land-use commission to help rapidly
growing areas plan for large-scale development. But concessions to
legislators opposed to planning and a diminishing budget in the
years that followed meant the commission never had the authority to
fulfill its mission, says Lamm, who later served as Colorado's
governor from 1975-1987.
never got out of the box," says Lamm. "The political culture wasn't
right. Oregon has a tradition of solving problems. We have a
tradition of individualism."
Lamm says he
blames himself for Colorado's failure to grapple with growth.
"Instead of talking about how to accommodate growth, I talked about
stopping it. I made growth the enemy, instead of unplanned growth,"
he says. "I wish I could live those years over."
In Colorado, Front Range environmentalists
recently formed a familiar-sounding group, 1000 Friends of
Colorado, hoping to generate momentum for a state planning law. One
of the group's founders, Boulder attorney John Spitzer, says
explosive growth throughout the state is changing the political
consciousness is much higher now," says Spitzer, "but the
politicians are still five years behind the person on the street."