Oregon needs a land-use strategy to ensure a supply of development ready land
It’s been 50 years since Oregon Gov. Tom McCall signed Oregon land-use law
Oregon's land use system was designed to protect farmland, like this land in eastern Oregon, from suburban sprawl. (Rick Vetter)
This year marks a half-century since Oregon Gov. Tom McCall signed into law Senate Bill 100 requiring comprehensive planning, which warned “uncoordinated use of lands in this state threaten the orderly development, the environment of this state and the health, safety, order, convenience, prosperity and welfare of the people of this state.”
Back then, the concern was about urban sprawl and haphazard development that would scar the state and disrupt traditional farm and timber economies, and make Oregon a less livable and manageable place. Addressing the Legislature, McCall blasted “sagebrush subdivisions, coastal condomania, and the ravenous rampages of suburbia.” In many ways that law (and others passed over the years) did its job and continues to do so.
Oregon is a big state, geographically the ninth-largest in the country, but the uses available for much of it are sharply limited. Time and circumstances have moved on, and legislators now would be well advised to pay attention to other problems as well in the state’s land-use picture. One, which was the subject of plenty of discussion during last year’s political campaigns, was the need for more space for residential housing, of which there’s a dire lack.
Another problem, and another lack, would have been counter-intuitive back in 1973: The lack of land available for industrial and manufacturing purposes. And if the goal of Oregon’s land-use planning is to address the full range of needs, use of land for industry and manufacturing is going to have to be addressed more effectively than it has been.
A new survey of Oregon communities, from the Oregon Business Council, the Oregon Economic Development Association and the League of Oregon Cities brings that into relief.
(A disclosure: My wife is the mayor of Carlton, which did participate in the survey but did not report any losses of economic opportunity due to lack of industry-ready property.)
The immediate trigger for it was concerns about making land available for the semiconductor industry, but the implications are far broader. The survey pulled responses from 66 Oregon communities ranging in size from Salem to Shaniko. (A few are not incorporated cities.) The survey said “57.5% indicated they have missed opportunities due to a lack of development ready industrial land.”
Those “missed opportunity” cities included Albany, Bend, Coburg, Eugene, Forest Grove, Grants Pass, Gresham, Happy Valley, Hermiston, Independence, Lebanon, McMinnville, Sherwood, Sisters, St. Helens, The Dalles, Tualatin and Wilsonville.
There is a subtlety here: It’s not just the raw amount of land, it’s also the evolution of infrastructure on the land. The communities said they had 9,746 acres of land zoned for industrial uses, but only about a fifth of that is ready for development: Much of it lacks utility access or road or other transport access and some are designated as polluted brownfields.
That theoretically available acreage is not evenly distributed. The Port of Tillamook Bay alone accounted for 1,100 acres, and the cities of Albany, Bend, Happy Valley, Lebanon, Ontario and Redmond almost half of the rest. The numbers are small in many communities, like Gresham (70), Lincoln City (12) and Lake Oswego (just one), and none at all in some (King City, Durham, Ukiah).
If there’s some incentive to apply a gas pedal to changing elements of the landuse regime, there’s also pressure to brake.
Speaking at the statehouse earlier this year, Metro Council President Lynn Peterson, for one, said that her agency would be opposed to any drastic changes in land-use laws and to breaking any past promises to farmers and environmental interests. And, she said, “the biggest barrier … to new industrial development in our region is not land supply, but whether the land is actually ready for development.”
That does suggest several elements need to be brought into play, including upgrades to infrastructure which many Oregon communities struggle with more broadly.
But absolute acreage matters too, especially when the amounts are small.
Metro has proven willing to be somewhat flexible. On Feb. 2, the Metro Council decided, for example, to okay a Tigard city urban growth boundary change to allow for new housing in the area, part of a larger effort to encourage more affordable housing.
A general strategic plan to open and prepare reasonable amounts of land for commercial and industrial uses could keep Oregon’s economy in balance. It would not try to dictate specific answers for each community, but might offer more flexibility for cities and other jurisdictions as they try to cope with the growth and development Oregon laws and plans already, even if loosely, do project for the coming decades.
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