Advice for party-goers: If you’re hoping to enthrall acquaintances and potential dates, avoid the terms "urban-growth boundary or "transit-oriented development." While working recently on a story about Oregon’s land-use system, I was eager to share my findings at social occasions. Bad idea.
Few Oregonians understand how it works, and my attempts
at conversation yielded polite nods. Even you, admit it, are
tempted to put down this article and go do something more fun, like
clean out the gutters. That’s too bad.
Oregon’s land-use system is unique and the envy of other
states; it has managed to protect large tracts of farm and forest
land and contain development within cities, avoiding the urban
sprawl that has come to define the periphery of so many of the
nation’s urban centers. That the majority of us who live here
don’t understand how it works is a failure of public policy
and threatens to be the program’s undoing.
wasn’t always this way. The land-use system, created in the
early 1970s, was born with strong public support and involvement.
As California’s northern neighbor, Oregon got a preview of
the suburban sprawl that would eventually afflict every Western
state. Throughout the 1960s, Oregon grew like a teenager with bad
acne. On the seacoast, developers lined up condominiums, high-rises
and amusement parks.
East of the Cascades in sagebrush
country, the land was rapidly being divided into four-acre
ranchettes. Center stage for this suburban explosion was the
Willamette Valley, where dairy farmers watched scattered homes
creep closer and closer.
Oregonians saw the future and
became determined to avoid it. So, it was with relative ease that
the Legislature and then-Gov. Tom McCall created a new state
agency, the Department of Land Conservation and Development. Yet
the nascent agency didn’t decide how Oregon would grow in a
back room. The department’s 10 staffers and a cadre of
volunteers spent the next 15 months holding public meetings across
the state. Their goal was to create a planning system that stemmed
from the grassroots.
It worked. Ultimately, over 10,000
people attended, and residents inundated the state with thousands
of letters and phone calls. Finally, the agency devised 10 broad
goals to guide local planners in creating land-use plans. The goals
included preserving farms and forests and building urban areas that
would hum with efficiency. At the top of the list was citizen
involvement. Arnold Cogan, the agency’s first director,
remembers that, in the 1970s, over half the people in the state
could have an informed conversation about land use. How times have
The system, amended during every Legislative
session since it passed in 1971, has grown cumbersome and
complicated. If you want to build a carport, you have to tell the
county about it and get a permit. If you want to develop on land
that is zoned for agricultural or forest use, you must make a
certain amount of money from the land or have a certain amount of
acreage. Regulations are written in such complex terms that even
those with a master’s degree in planning or a law degree
often find them confusing. People complain the process takes
forever and that regulations making geographic sense in the
Willamette Valley are ridiculous in the sagebrush desert of eastern
Furthermore, the nonprofit groups charged to
promote and monitor the program, such as 1,000 Friends of Oregon
and the Oregon chapter of the American Planning Association, have
become as much a part of the entrenched establishment as the state
agencies. They immediately become defensive when anyone dares to
critique the system.
As one planner explains, "Sure the
system isn’t perfect, but … I feel I’m defending
an island of sanity in an insane world." After decades of battles
won and lost, interest groups are now so attached to the status
quo, they are understandably loath to reopen the public process.
Yet that is exactly what needs to happen. If Oregon wants
its land-use system to last another 30 years, reform is essential.
Aside from developing regional standards and streamlining the
planning process, what’s most needed is a reinvigorated
While a coalition of academics, planners and
agency staffers is looking into private funding for a public
education and reform process, it is still at an early stage and
remains short on specifics. But Oregonians owe it to ourselves to
make land-use planning both fair and effective. Maybe then we can
return to the creative era when people could say land-use planning
system three times rapidly -- even at a cocktail party.