Analysis: Is image of sprawl county’s bad rap?

Portlanders' opinions may limit options for bridge replacement




Is Washington's anti-sprawl law strong enough to hold back growth if we get a big new bridge?

? On one side: No, some Portland environmentalists say. State law doesn't do enough to regulate rural lots -- and anyway, more road capacity always causes sprawl.

? On another side: Maybe, some Clark County environmentalists say. If Portlanders really wanted less sprawl in Clark County, they'd focus on land use, not the new bridge.

Did Clark County’s image as Sprawlville, Wash., kill the bridge?

No, the plans for a replacement I-5 bridge haven’t been knocked out yet. But they’re clearly on the ropes — and they’d take another big blow if Portland environmentalists defeat Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder, one of the few elected Portlanders willing to champion a bridge replacement, in his race for Metro’s presidency next month.

Is Washington’s anti-sprawl law strong enough to hold back growth if we get a big new bridge?

? On one side: No, some Portland environmentalists say. State law doesn’t do enough to regulate rural lots — and anyway, more road capacity always causes sprawl.

? On another side: Maybe, some Clark County environmentalists say. If Portlanders really wanted less sprawl in Clark County, they’d focus on land use, not the new bridge.

Time and again, Burkholder opponent Bob Stacey and other Portland progressives list the same reason for opposing the bridge: preventing “more low-density, auto-dependent development in Clark County,” as Stacey puts it on his campaign Web site.

But wait a minute. Hasn’t Washington been limiting urban growth since 1990 — ever since former state Rep. Joe King of Vancouver pushed through a law inspired by Oregon’s landmark 1973 growth management act? Doesn’t Clark County have a perennially controversial urban growth boundary, just like Portland?

It does. But even left-leaning Portland leaders readily volunteer that most of their constituents haven’t heard the news yet.

“There are checks and balances in Washington just as there are here in Oregon,” said David Bragdon, the current president of Metro, Portland’s regional planning agency. “I think most Oregonians think that Oregon’s the only state in the Union that has land-use planning, and the other 49, including Washington, don’t. Which was true in 1973, but is not true today.”

Lack of trust

If Bragdon’s hunch is right, it helps explain why the spring 2009 bridge compromise between mayors Royce Pollard and Sam Adams, “up to” 12 lanes with light rail, has faltered ever since Adams backed away from the bargain a few months later.

Many Portland environmentalists have come out against the plan because they don’t trust Clark County — or, they sometimes add, any American community — to resist sprawl.

Leaders in Portland’s environmental community, at least, tend to know the county to their north has regulated growth since the 1990s.

“The two systems have great similarities,” Stacey said in an interview last week. “If you look at what the city of Vancouver has planned to do and has done (downtown), those are wonderful examples for the region.”

But even among Portlanders who are aware of how land-use restrictions work across the Columbia, many don’t think Washington’s Growth Management Act is up to the job.

“You expand capacity on a facility like that, and we’ve been shown time and time again that that will induce traffic,” said Mary Kyle McCurdy, staff attorney for 1000 Friends of Oregon. “It makes it easier for people — in at least in the short term — to commute from farther distances. And that’s what they’ll do. And they will fill it up again.

“There just simply isn’t another experience in the country … that would tell you otherwise,” McCurdy added.

Some bridge opponents in Portland say they need to bone up on Washington land-use law.

“I don’t know the specifics of the Washington plan,” said Mara Gross, policy director for the Coalition for a Liveable Future, a group that has become one of the bridge’s loudest opponents.

Stephanie Routh, director of the Willamette Pedestrian Coalition, said she tends to speak about sprawl “to people in Washington County and Clackamas County, and not in Clark County.”

Every Portland environmentalist interviewed for this story added that Portlanders should not think of Clark County residents as the enemy — as when, in a bit of April Fool’s activism Thursday, a group called Portland Rising Tide put fake covers on 3,500 Willamette Week newspapers to attack Burkholder and describe Clark County as a “tax shelter to the stars” full of “cul-de-sacs and gated communities.”

Clark County residents who work in Oregon must pay taxes in both states, but interviews suggested the misperception is common among Oregonians.

“I try and squelch that,” Gross said of attacks on Clark County residents. “I don’t think that’s healthy debate.”

Weaker law?

Here’s a final question about Portland environmentalists who believe Clark County can’t hold back its sprawl: Do they have a point?

Quite possibly.

“Oregon has real growth management,” said John Karpinski, a Vancouver environmental lawyer. “We have growth management lite.”

The main difference: In Oregon, local urban expansions go directly to a state agency for approval. In Washington, citizens like Karpinski must appeal growth plans before the state steps in.

Karpinski, who successfully scaled back Clark County’s 1994 and 2007 growth plans, is living proof that Washington’s Growth Management Act sometimes works — and also that it has loopholes.

In 2007, county commissioners’ 12,000-acre urban expansion was the biggest on state record. The next year, a state growth board agreed with Karpinski that under Washington law, 1,600 acres of farmland shouldn’t have been urbanized.

But by that point, the cities of Ridgefield and Camas had already annexed half that land, taking it out of state control. Karpinski’s challenge now sits in the state Court of Appeals, while annexations continue to gnaw away at the land in question.

Others say Washington’s anti-sprawl law is nearly as strong as Oregon’s.

Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart, a former Olympia anti-sprawl lobbyist who voted for the big 2007 growth plan, called the two laws “very similar.”

“They just don’t recognize it,” Stuart said of Portlanders. “Long-held perceptions are hard to change.”

Using roads to plan

Clark County’s environmentalists are likely to argue forever about the strength of Washington’s anti-sprawl law.

But even some of them chafe at their Portland peers’ resistance to a bridge replacement.

Karpinski, the environmental lawyer, does.

If Portland’s planners really cared about growth in Clark County, he said, they should have spoken up when he was fighting the county’s urban expansions.

“If it wasn’t important enough to get involved in the growth planning process when we did our ’94 plan, our 2004 plan and our 2007 plan, then why are we trying to plan by restricting road capacity, which is a stupid, bass-ackwards way of trying to plan for people?” Karpinski asked. “Since (Metro) have done nothing to try to control growth over here, they must like it that growth is out of control over here.”

Metro, Karpinski claimed, is speaking up now only because it faces political pressure to prevent congestion near downtown Portland.

Bragdon, the departing Metro president, said he hadn’t heard of Karpinski and was taken aback by the accusation.

“It’s certainly not our role to dictate what happens in another state,” Bragdon said. “Any more than it’d be important for people in another state to dictate what happens to us.”

Michael Andersen: 360-735-4508 or