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Housing shortage tests Ore. urban growth boundaries

Lawmakers poised to tweak pioneering 1973 land-use law

By CLAIRE RUSH, Associated Press
Published: February 26, 2024, 6:04am
4 Photos
Homes in the southwest Portland suburb of Beaverton, Ore., line the urban growth boundary on Thursday. Such boundaries were established in 1973 to prevent urban sprawl and preserve nature and farmland in Oregon.
Homes in the southwest Portland suburb of Beaverton, Ore., line the urban growth boundary on Thursday. Such boundaries were established in 1973 to prevent urban sprawl and preserve nature and farmland in Oregon. (Jenny Kane/Associated Press) Photo Gallery

PORTLAND — A severe lack of affordable housing has prompted Oregon lawmakers to consider chipping away at a 1973 law that made the state a national leader in leveraging land-use policy to prevent suburban sprawl and conserve nature and agriculture.

The so-called urban growth boundary, a sacred cow of Oregon’s liberal politics, helped to cement the state’s green reputation and has been “extremely influential” in its development, said Megan Horst, an urban planning professor at Portland State University.

“I can’t overstate it,” she said of the half-century-old law. “All that farmland would likely be a sea of strip malls and subdivisions, as they are pretty much anywhere else in the country.”

But interconnected homelessness and housing crises have forced exceptions to be considered by lawmakers, including Democrats who have historically defended the landmark policy.

The sole bill introduced by Democratic Gov. Tina Kotek during this year’s short legislative session is a sweeping housing package aiming to jumpstart home construction by tweaking the 1973 law, which essentially drew a circle around cities to protect farmland, forests and nature from urban encroachment.

Lawmakers have just two weeks to approve the bill; the session ends March 10.

As the longest-serving speaker of the Oregon House, from 2013 to 2022, Kotek became known for her progressive agenda. But as governor, she has sought to ease restrictions for developers in a bid to advance her housing production goals.

Working to win support for the package has put her in the unusual position of having to lobby not Republicans — who largely back it — but members of her own party, many of whom voted against a similar measure last year. Kotek said she spent the seven months between legislative sessions speaking with lawmakers, housing developers and conservation groups to find a middle ground.

“We had some proposals last year that didn’t work for everyone, but we didn’t walk away. We sat down and worked on it,” she said while testifying in support of the bill, describing herself as its “chief architect” and “chief cheerleader.”

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“I also know that the process means there might be amendments,” she added. “But what we can’t see happen is that this Legislature leaves at the end of their session without this bill.”

On the ground, the anti-sprawl policy can look dramatic. In places, blocks of dense apartment complexes abruptly end and give way to thick forest or rolling fields.

The 42-page package would, among many other things, grant a one-time exemption to the decades-old rule by allowing cities to acquire new land for the purpose of building housing. It would require 30 percent of new units in expansion areas to be affordable.

Currently, cities must forecast population growth over 20 years before requesting to change an urban growth boundary for new homes, businesses, or industrial or public facilities. If they show the area inside their boundary won’t accommodate projected needs and identify outside land meeting a complex set of criteria, they can apply to expand.

Cities of more than 2,500 residents seeking to add more than 50 acres must submit an application to a state agency for approval.

Ninety-five percent of such adjustments were approved between 2016 and 2023, according to the Department of Land Conservation & Development, the agency tasked with approvals. But many cities and developers say the rigorous evaluation and analysis requirements can be long and difficult to navigate.

“While land supply is not a barrier for all cities, it is critical for some, and the current … process is time-consuming, cost-prohibitive, and litigious,” Ariel Nelson, a lobbyist for the League of Oregon Cities, which has a neutral stance on the bill, said in written testimony.

To speed up the process, the bill before lawmakers would ease certain regulations and waive the 20-year population forecast if conditions are met. But the proposal still includes a number of restrictions largely stemming from Democrats’ requests.

In order to be eligible, cities must prove they lack land as well as affordable housing. They would need to outline the history of their growth boundary in the previous 20 years and assess how much land inside the current boundary has been developed. They would also have to show that a certain percentage of households are severely cost burdened, meaning they spend more than half of their income on housing.

In most cases, cities wouldn’t be able to add high-value farm or forest land.

Additionally, cities would be able to add only relatively small areas of land: Those with populations less than 25,000, for example, could add a maximum of 50 “net residential” acres, which is less than one-tenth of a square mile. A net residential acre refers to the amount of land used to build homes, excluding streets and utilities.