Have Oregon’s urban growth boundaries been too conservation-friendly?

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Promoting an orderly pattern of land-use change, particularly when it comes to the conversion of farmland and forests to developed uses, is the cornerstone of Oregon’s statewide land-use planning system. A key piece of our system, which largely traces back to 1973 under Senate Bill (SB) 100, is the broad mandate that all incorporated cities and towns in Oregon must establish and maintain an urban growth boundary (UGB). UGBs determine where cities are able to expand and are supposed to be designed to accommodate roughly 20 years of future urban growth.

Although the ability of cities to expand their UGBs was built into the intent of SB 100, a brief look at some high-level summary statistics paints a clear picture that UGB expansions have not kept pace with population growth. Between 1980, when most cities formally adopted their UGBs, and 2020, Oregon’s population grew from 2.6 to 4.2 million, a 61% increase. Over the same period, however, UGBs in the state expanded by just 10%. Moreover, some cities haven’t expanded their UGBs at all. Take Corvallis, for instance, which saw its population increase by about 50% between 1980 and 2020 yet has never expanded its UGB.  

In the most recent state legislative session, lawmakers passed an important change to the rules governing the expansion of UGBs. Specifically, new bipartisan legislation expedites the UGB expansion process and allows for a one-time expansion based on the population of the city (or cities) a UGB contains: 50 acres for cities with a population under 25,000, 100 acres for larger cities, and 300 acres for Portland Metro. The UGB expansion process typically involves extensive planning and documentation requirements that, when coupled with legal challenges to a proposed expansion, can create significant and costly delays in the ability of cities to meet their housing and development needs. The recent legislation is designed to relieve eligible cities of having to adhere to some of these requirements. Among other details, including safeguards against prime farmland development, these one-time exemptions must be used within 10 years, are not available to cities that have recently expanded their UGBs, and must earmark at least 30% of the housing built in the expanded area to meet certain affordability requirements.  

While land conservation organizations have largely decried the UGB policy change as posing a threat to Oregon’s farms and forests, an overarching goal of Oregon’s land-use planning system is to preserve working agricultural and forest lands while still providing a path for cities to grow through UGB expansions. As I documented in an earlier post, Oregon developed considerably less land than its neighbors between 1982 and 2017 and, furthermore, the amount of land developed per year has declined over the 21st century. How to balance land conservation and the provision of land available for housing is a constant challenge, and the fact remains that Oregon has a serious housing affordability problem. Temporarily streamlining the UGB expansion process is one way to narrow the widening gap between housing demand and supply, while at the same time preserving the intent of SB 100 and conserving the vast majority of our state’s land resources.

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