Planning's poster child grows up

Oregon's 30-year-old land-use rules may need a face-lift

  • 40 ACRES ... NO 80 ... WAIT, MAKE THAT 160: Oregon farmers have seen the Legislature steadily increase the acres required to build a house

    Rebecca Clarren
  • LIVING OFF THE LAND: Janis Wood, with husband, Lynn, and granddaughter Jessica, says, "If a person wants to farm and build on their own property, then they should be able to. Isn't that our constitutional right?"

    Courtesy Wood family
  • "VISUALIZE THE ALTERNATIVE": In 1981, farmer Hector Macpherson urged Linn County commissioners to uphold county land-use laws protecting farms and forests

    Albany Democrat-Herald
  • PUSHED OUT: "I never in my entire life thought I'd want to move out of the city of Portland, but I'm thinking about it," says Craig Flynn

    Rebecca Clarren
  • ON THE DEFENSIVE: "I feel like I'm defending an island of sanity in an insane world," says Jacob Brostoff of 1,000 Friends of Oregon

    Rebecca Clarren
  • map

    Diane Sylvain

LEBANON, Ore. - What's remarkable about the landscape leading to Lynn and Janis Wood's orchard is not the low autumn light that shines heavy and full on wide swaths of green alfalfa fields. It's not the smell of woodsmoke that rises from a smattering of old farmhouses and trailers. It's not the knots of blackberry bushes that cling to the roadside.

What's remarkable is what's missing from this picture. Here in Lebanon, just seven miles east of Corvallis, the state's tenth largest city and home of Oregon State University, there are no cookie-cutter subdivisions, no Wal-Marts or Blockbuster Video stores, no snarling traffic along this main road. The sprawl that has come to define the periphery of so many of the West's urban centers just isn't here.

This is not some happy coincidence. Thirty years ago, the Oregon Legislature created a state land-use planning system to preserve farmland and contain development within cities. Proof that it has worked is obvious - simply take a drive beyond any Oregon city limits. Pastoral views such as the ones around Lebanon, pop. 12,000, are why some planners call Oregon the country's most livable state, and why Oregon's land-use system often gets its own chapter in college planning textbooks.

But look harder at this picture and you'll see a dark and growing shadow. All is not quite so utopian as it first appears. Just ask the Woods.

The Woods moved to Lebanon three years ago from Missouri to settle in and relax, although, as Lynn jokes, "I'm more tired than retired." He should be - he and Janis, both over 60, bought 16 acres and planted fruit trees and berry bushes. On the few days a year when Lynn doesn't service mailing equipment for his old company, he and Janis pick fruit, man their roadside farm stand, irrigate and attend to other farm business.

But the same land-use regulations that have staved off sprawl prohibit the Woods from building a home on this land. Instead, they live in town, three miles away, and commute to the farm. It's more than an inconvenience. While the Woods have been in town, thieves have made off with their peaches, apples and tractor.

"If a person wants to farm and build on their own property, then they should be able to. Isn't that our constitutional right?" says Janis Wood as she walks through rows of marionberry bushes. "Aren't we helping the community by producing fruit? I sure as hell don't understand it."

In some ways, the Woods fit the profile of people you'd expect to grouse about their property rights - they're conservative, rural Republicans, and new to Oregon. But don't think that they're alone.

While Oregon's land-use system was born with huge public support, over half of the state's current population wasn't around when it was created. For many newcomers, the regulations are confusing and restrictive. Even many longtime Oregonians say that a system that began with clear goals has grown into a bureaucratic snarl, and that the rules have become onerous and arbitrary.

Planning proponents, for their part, have become increasingly defensive, a stance some say could endanger the very system they seek to protect. If the state fails to engage the public in a new dialogue about land-use planning, some academics predict the system will not last another 30 years. "In a democratic, open society, regulation only works if the public sees the validity and the reasonableness of what we're trying to do," says Nohad Toulan, the dean of the College of Urban and Public Affairs at Portland State University. "The writing is on the wall: It is up to us planners today to demonstrate how great is our vision for the future of Oregon, or this system will surely fail."

Order out of chaos

As California's northern neighbor, Oregon got a sneak preview of the suburban sprawl that would eventually afflict every Western state. Then, through the 1960s, Oregon grew like a teenage boy with bad acne. On the seacoast, developers lined up condominiums, high-rises and amusement parks. Automobile pollution was so bad that then Governor Mark Hatfield dubbed the coastal town of Lincoln City, "the 20 miserable miles." East of the Cascades in sagebrush country, the land was rapidly being divided into four-acre ranchettes.

Center stage for this suburban explosion was west of the Cascades, in the Willamette Valley south of Portland. A valley dairy farmer, Hector Macpherson, saw scattered homes creeping into the country and it made him nervous. "I knew people wouldn't appreciate the odor and flies of my operation," he says with a smile, glancing out his living room window to the land he has lived on for 80 years. On the fridge behind him, plastered above photos of grandchildren, is a STOP SPRAWL bumper sticker.

As chairman of the Linn County Planning Commission in the 1960s, Macpherson struggled to protect farmland from development, but with no authority from the state, the commission had little power. Macpherson became a champion of statewide planning. "We must plan," he told a crowd at Oregon State University in 1967. "Visualize the alternative: A valley where neighbor encroaches on neighbor, a land unproductive agriculturally where hunger and want must surely follow. Let's bring order out of chaos." Elected as a state senator in 1971, Macpherson worked for two years alongside then Gov. Tom McCall, laying the foundation for the most unique land-use system of the time.

No one can explain why exactly Oregon succeeded in this endeavor, when other states in the West failed. Everyone seems to credit perfect timing: The development pressure from California refugees sparked a huge rally of support from the Willamette Valley. This coincided with a volley of groundbreaking environmental laws on the federal level, which brought federal money for planning.

Even so, Macpherson's land-use plan didn't exactly fly through the Legislature. From the onset, rural landowners from the southern part of the state opposed planning of any kind, fearing it would infringe on their property rights and reduce the value of their land. Yet with 70 percent of the population based in the Willamette Valley, the critics were too rural, too poor and too few to make a difference.

In 1973, the Legislature voted to create a new state agency, the Department of Land Conservation and Development, which had the power to monitor city and county land-use planning. Piling into two vans, the nascent department's 10 staffers spent the next 15 months holding public meetings across the state. Their mandate: to create a planning system that stemmed from the grassroots.

"We sat around big tables and we would just ask people what they liked about this state," remembers Arnold Cogan, the agency's first director. "People told us these meetings were unlike any public meeting they had ever attended. We got applause at the end of these meetings." Ultimately, over 10,000 people attended, and residents inundated the Department of Land Conservation and Development with thousands of letters and phone calls.

Finally, the agency came up with 10 broad goals to guide local planners in creating land-use plans for counties, cities and towns. The goals included preserving farms and forests, and at the top of the list was citizen involvement. Cogan and other early visionaries hoped to create the ideal Oregon, a place where small towns could remain small, urban areas would hum with efficiency, and farms and forests would surround cities in great ribbons of green.

Within the 14 original goals are obvious nods to interest groups: economic development, home-building and wildlife habitat protection. Even the mining industry, a minor-league player in Oregon, got its due: Embedded in the goal aimed at preserving wildlife habitat and open space is language that protects gravel and mineral resources from subdivisions.

Everyone got a piece of the pie, or so it seemed.

Mission creep

Over time, as various interest groups worked the Legislature and the planning agency, the 10 statewide goals grew to 19. Regulations imposed by the state, or by local governments prodded by the state, grew more and more complex, thorough and detailed.

So today in Oregon, for example, if you want to build a destination resort, you can't build it in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, or within 24 miles of any major city, or on any of the best private forest. To protect the best farmland, you have to be at least three miles from any "high value" crop such as fruits, berries and mint. You can build the resort along an ocean beach, but it has to be smaller than if you built it inland. Building a house can be just as tricky. About 16 million acres of Oregon farmland are now classified Exclusive Farm Use. If you want to build a house on that kind of land, the house has to qualify in one of seven categories, including farm dwelling (for a working farmer), replacement dwelling, temporary hardship dwelling, or a dwelling for relatives helping out on the farm. You have to prove you're a farmer by earning a minimum income off the land - a criteria set by three different formulas. Or in many cases, if the parcel is at least 160 acres, you can build.

"You can't just build houses out in the country because you want to. You have to justify it," says Randy Tucker, a lobbyist for 1,000 Friends of Oregon, the state's leading pro-planning group, also created in the mid-1970s.

This mentality is endlessly frustrating to Stuart Bonney, who looks out on his rocky and arid land in eastern Oregon's Umatilla County and mutters something about this "goofy situation." An Oregonian off and on for nearly 80 years - he left for a seven-year stint in the Navy and then again to work on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington - Bonney says he has always returned here because "it's just so damn beautiful." A self-made man who "started batchin" at the age of 15 when his parents moved away, Bonney invested in chunks of land, including this 306 acres, with the idea of some day building on it.

When Bonney first bought the acreage, state regulations prevented him from building a house on anything less than 16 acres. The requirement was repeatedly made tougher, to a 40-acre minimum, then 80, and now 160 acres. While Bonney has well over the 160-acre minimum, he sees the income requirements - intended to keep farmland out of the hands of wealthy hobby farmers - as a hurdle. Bonney says he can't make enough on his land to qualify.

But what really gets Bonney is that the state never consulted him when it wrote - and rewrote - the rules on his land. (Until voters changed the rule with a ballot initiative in the mid-1990s, the state was not required to contact individual land owners affected by zoning changes.) If officials had talked to him, he could have told them a few things: "They don't make a plow for this sort of soil," he says, pointing out the boulders the size of small children that litter the place. Fed up, Bonney say's he's selling the land.

Some city planners in rural Oregon also find the system frustrating. The state land-use rules require all cities to draw urban growth boundaries, invisible lines at which all development stops. The original lines were based on predictions of how much each town or city would grow in the following 20 years, and the state will only approve expansions if the city or town can prove it is outgrowing the area. Urban growth boundaries are a powerful tool for protecting open space, but they have a flip side, says Mike Hyde, a planner for the city of La Grande, pop. 12,000. As La Grande's timber economy has plummeted, the city has tried to attract new forms of business. But the city's urban growth boundary was originally drafted so tightly, there is no land suitably zoned for commercial business. Because the city has grown by only .4 percent annually, the state refuses to expand the boundary.

"We sorely need economic growth here and yet the system prevents us from growing," says Hyde. "It just propels the idea that regulation only helps folks on the other side of the state."

Frustration, mainly from rural areas, fueled a number of attacks on the land-use program in its early years. In 1976, 1978 and 1982, ballot initiatives funded by real estate agents, libertarians and private-property rights activists, and supported by county governments, attempted to cripple the power of the state to regulate land use. None of them came close to passing, but they revealed a small wound that would continue to fester.

That hurt spread into urban areas as the Northwest grew fat on computers and the stock market throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. Cities such as Portland suddenly bumped up against urban growth boundaries. "When planners started to tell people in Portland that the same regulatory framework that applies to rural people applies to them, the loud groaning noises started," says Jon Chandler, a land-use specialist with the Oregon Building Industry Association.

Squeezing the suburban dream

Craig Flynn stares up at the new apartment building in his southeast Portland neighborhood with disgust. Like a child's toy set, complete with flags at the entrance, three-story structures painted in bold maroons, yellows and greens rise in shiny, prepackaged redundancy. Construction crews clear land ringing the new development for more of the same.

"This used to be a school, and over there was a Piggly Wiggly," says Flynn, pointing to the freshly bulldozed ground. Flynn grew up in this neighborhood and now lives a few miles away with his wife and six children. He's a former liberal turned conservative, making his living as a small-scale property manager. He doesn't like how the state is pushing the city to redevelop neighborhoods such as this one, next to a new light-rail train line, giving developers tax breaks and low-interest loans if they build high-density housing.By clustering development along the train line, city planners say they reduce the need for cars, cutting road infrastructure costs and pollution. But Flynn says he and his neighbors should have been consulted first. "We used to brag about how this was a city where people lived in houses and had big yards," says Flynn. "I never in my entire life thought I'd want to move out of the city of Portland, but I'm thinking about it."

Even some of planning's greatest supporters have become disillusioned. John Charles, who was director of the Oregon Environmental Council for 17 years, helped draft many of the early land-use laws and won awards for his work. "I was a true believer," he says over the hum of a passing light-rail train in the Portland suburb of Beaverton. Now the environmental policy director of the Cascade Policy Institute, a libertarian think tank, Charles is one of the system's most outspoken critics, particularly when it comes to urban growth boundaries.

Metropolitan Portland's growth boundary, formalized in 1980, encompasses about 236,000 acres. It's been expanded only slightly over the years - by about 5,000 acres so far, and likely by another 10,000 acres or so any day now. The requirement to allow for 20 years of future growth is a rolling horizon, supposedly allowing updates and flexibility, incorporating public comment. But Charles says the process of expanding boundaries is too difficult, the boundaries are not flexible enough, and that metro Portland's boundary in particular has forced growth to be too dense, making neighborhoods less livable - the opposite of the goal.

"Growth boundaries have become religious icons," says Charles. "The (planning) system has become religious, based on ideology rather than reality."

As cul-de-sacs and one-acre lots join beehive hairdos and rotary phones, critics like Flynn worry that the classic suburban dream will become too expensive for the middle class. Some working-class neighborhoods are becoming gentrified, while fewer than one third of Portland-area families can afford a median-priced single-family home - less than half the national average (HCN, 7/5/99: Who loses when a city neighborhood goes upscale?).

Economists disagree over whether the urban growth boundary has been a factor in the dramatic rise in housing prices in Portland. Planners point out that regional rules make affordable housing part of the mix. Nonetheless, resentments - and housing costs - have risen in cities. And frustrations have persisted in rural areas, where many people blame land-use regs for decreasing land values. Together, urban and rural critics set the stage for the most recent assault on Oregon's land-use system: Measure 7, an initiative on the 2000 ballot that would require state and local governments to compensate landowners whose property value is affected by regulation.

The initiative, which passed with 57 percent of the vote, shocked planners, who feared the measure would bankrupt local governments and render the whole land-use planning program ineffective (HCN, 6/4/01: Takings legislation cracks Oregon's green foundation). Much to their relief, the Oregon Supreme Court threw the measure out this October, declaring it unconstitutional based on a technicality with the way it was phrased.

An island of sanity

"It's incredibly unfair to be critical of this program," says Jacob Brostoff of 1,000 Friends of Oregon, which monitors and helps enforce the land-use program. "Sure, the system isn't perfect, but what the hell is anyone else in this country up to? I feel defensive about this system, because I feel like I'm defending an island of sanity in an insane world."

Brostoff, 28, moved to Portland five years ago, and is about to complete a master's degree in urban planning at Portland State University. Living here, amid a throng of planners, is "like being a computer programmer in Silicon Valley - it's great," he says, standing before a sculpture at the Oregon Zoo - a product of a regulation that requires developers to spend 1 percent of building costs on public art projects.

"The program is working remarkably well," he says. "The only problem with the program is that it could be better enforced."

Where critics like Flynn and Charles see unattractive high-rises, Brostoff sees a vibrant community and housing choices for people with a range of income levels (see story at left). Where critics see an expensive light-rail line, Brostoff sees ridership that increases every year and that helps Oregon to exceed federal Clean Air Act standards.

The program is also achieving its original intent: protecting farm and forestland. Washington state paves over 40,000 acres of forestland every year, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Western Oregon, where most of the state's timberlands are, loses only 1,000 acres of forest each year to urban and transportation development. While Clinton-era policies greatly reduced timber cuts on federal land, Oregon timber lobbyists credit the state's land-use system for maintaining forestry as a dependable staple of the economy: Because most forestland is off-limits to development, it stays in production.

Similarly, in the last decade, California lost over 1.1 million acres of farmland to development. Oregon lost just over 150,000 acres. Although twice as many people moved to Oregon as to Idaho in the past decade, Idaho traded more of its farmland for homes.

This is a great relief to farmers such as Trevor Baird, who hands out peach samples at a bustling farmers' market in downtown Portland, approximately 30 miles from his family's farm in Dayton. He says it's frustrating that the land-use rules won't allow him to build a home on his parent's orchard. "At the same time, I think it's good, because no one else can build there either. I think about places in the state that are zoned differently and there's tons of development - and I wouldn't want to live there."

Even east of the Cascades, where urban sprawl is not as great a problem, some say they're glad the land-use planning system is in place. "You have to be bit visionary to appreciate the system," says Patty Perry, a senior planner for rural Umatilla County in eastern Oregon. "Without these regulations, maybe things now would look the same, but over a period of 50 years I think our rural lifestyle would be different. I bet if we didn't have these around, we'd say, 'Boy, I wish we'd kept things like we had it.' "

In fact, polls show that most Oregonians still support land-use planning. Surveys conducted by both 1,000 Friends and the League of Conservation Voters consistently show support for the basic land-use planning system at a level of 2-1.

Time for another look

If planning is so popular, how does one explain the majority of voters who approved Measure 7? This was one of the questions asked by a team of academics chaired by Nohad Toulan of Portland State University's School of Urban and Public Affairs. The team, called the Committee on the Oregon Planning Experience, or COPE, was asked by the Oregon Chapter of the American Planning Association to look into the public's support for Oregon's planning system.

After reviewing the literature, holding meetings with experts, and interviewing 55 planners and civic leaders from a wide variety of perspectives, the academic team concluded that the passage of Measure 7 was largely the result of misunderstandings, misinformation and frustration with the planning bureaucracy - not dissatisfaction with the planning system's basic objectives.

"The devil of land-use planning is in the details," says chapter president Mitch Rohse, "but the bedrock principles of land-use planning in Oregon - I don't think those have changed much."

The rest of the COPE report, however, offers a clear-eyed - and not always glowing - critique of Oregon's planning system. Above all, it says, Oregon's leaders need to seek a new vision for land-use planning that is more in line with Oregon's economy and population today. It also recommends expanding education about the program, streamlining the planning process and addressing the ubiquitous concern that the planning system doesn't benefit all Oregonians equally.

Perhaps most damning, the report calls the state's history of citizen participation "spotty" and the source of "immense frustration" among citizens. "We need to get in contact with what brought the program into being, because a lot of people have forgotten why we do this," says Ed Sullivan, a law professor at Lewis and Clark College who helped research the report. "It's not going to be very fun, because people will challenge what we've been working on all this time. But Socrates said the unexamined life is no life at all."

When the COPE report was released in November 2001, its authors hoped to circulate it widely to the public, the Legislature and the Department of Land Conservation and Development. They also proposed creating a committee to re-examine the objectives of the land-use planning program and work toward a new long-range vision. That hasn't happened. The report is available on the Planning Association's Web site, but it comes attached to a four-page cover letter that includes cautions and caveats for the report's recommendations.

Mitch Rohse explains that while the report identifies some important problems, there is simply not enough good data to support any major policy changes. Every year, 240 cities and 36 counties create an estimated minimum of 20,000 land-use directives, and there is no central repository for this information. Without concrete figures, "it's unclear what is a valid issue and what is a child of the vast amount of misinformation about the state's system," says Rohse.

A coalition of academics, planners and agency staffers has started to look into private funding for the public education and revisioning process the report recommends, but it is still at the very early stages and remains short on specifics. Some worry that there simply isn't the will to lead the way.

"There's a mentality of 'don't rock the boat too much because we will all go under,' " says Arnold Cogan, the first director of the Department of Land Conservation and Development. He says nonprofit groups such as the American Planning Association and 1,000 Friends "have become as much a part of the establishment as the agencies."

Even if the will existed, the funding may not. The state is currently paralyzed by severe budget shortfalls and a school funding crisis. It is unlikely that the newly elected Legislature or governor will have time to focus on land use.

But without reform, some warn another Measure 7 is sure to be introduced, again threatening to obliterate Oregon's land-use planning system. "We must tackle the problem now, before it is too late," says Cogan.

Easier said than done, to be sure, but Oregon has surprised the West again and again with its tenacity and inventiveness.

"We didn't get one of the best land-use systems by sitting around and being reflective," says Susan McLain, a councilor for Metro, the regional government that governs growth in the Portland area. "We did it by being cutting-edge and working to improve and refine the program. We can't stand on our past laurels. We have to acknowledge that this is the 21st century and we have a lot of work to do."

Rebecca Clarren, a former HCN associate editor, lives in Portland, Oregon.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- New Urbanism creates living communities

- Across the Columbia, a game of catch-up

You can contact ...

  • Paul Curcio, director, Department of Land Conservation and Development, 503/373-0050 x222, [email protected],;
  • John Charles, Cascade Policy Institute, 503/242-0900, [email protected];
  • Randy Tucker, 1,000 Friends of Oregon, 503/497-1000,;
  • Mitch Rohse, president, Oregon Chapter of American Planning Association, 503/559-6558,
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