From Our Director: Why We're Challenging a Lackluster Vision for Greater Portland

By Jason Miner September 2012

This week, 1000 Friends submitted formal notice it is appealing Metro’s urban and reserves plan. The plan, which was recently “acknowledged” by the Oregon Land Conservation and Development Commission, is supposed to be a roadmap to the next fifty years of urban development and rural conservation for the Portland region. But if we follow the map that’s been drawn, we’re bound to lose our way. That’s why we’re standing against it.

I want to tell you why we’ve made this choice. But first I want to tell you about a place.

Maybe you’ve been there. You’ve no doubt been somewhere like it in Oregon.

You head west on Highway 26 in Washington County, an oft-clogged freeway on a course for the Oregon coast. You pass mile after mile, exit after exit; you see commercial warehouses, big boxes, apartments that come right up to the freeway’s shoulders and interchanges. You see the vast sweep of Washington County’s urban area spreading across the wide valley below the Coast Range and the Tualatin Mountains.

And then—it ends. The urban tide ebbs, the hills seem closer, the vistas open up. It’s a sensation familiar around Oregon, a marker for many of us as we travel from town to town. Wherever you live, knowing where your city ends is a shared value among Oregonians.

Along Highway 26, one such spot is Helvetia Road. If you exit there and head north, the urban-rural transition is almost jarring in its suddenness. With Hillsboro’s high tech campuses, subdivisions, and light rail lines still in sight, you enter a landscape that has not changed substantially in over a hundred years. All around are farms, many of them Century Farms, where Oregonians still work the soil and contribute to an agricultural economy that’s only growing stronger in Washington County, and in Oregon.

It’s not a past-tense place. It’s an active, immediate place, and it’s just minutes from the center of the state’s most populous region. It’s producing, rather than consumed.

And if Metro’s reserves plan stands, it may one day be like the other places you just passed along Highway 26. It will be just another liability for taxpayers, and another permanent symbol of careless disregard for one of Oregon’s greatest and most irreplaceable assets: our productive, active farmland.

This is an area, like thousands of other acres of highly productive farmland in Washington County, that the county and Metro would like to see paved over in the decades to come. Places like the McKay Creek area north of Hillsboro (pictured above), the south Cooper Mountain area outside Beaverton, and orchards and woods along Chicken Creek west of Sherwood.

It’s a lackluster vision, one that assumes our future will be defined by the same sprawl we now find so relieving to leave behind. It’s a vision that ignores this region’s long-held desire for healthier communities with real transportation options, opting instead for disconnection and congestion—a region more like Houston, or Orange County. It’s a vision that disregards state law directing urbanization away from our highest-quality farmland—a vision that proposes to instead lock that land up in pavement. And it’s a vision that will make it harder to achieve our shared goal of improving the communities where most Oregonians already live.

In short, it’s a vision that provides little to inspire, and little to hope for. And we must challenge it.

When the reserves plan was approved, many local and regional leaders trumpeted it as a historic achievement for rural conservation in the Portland region. They called out some impressive numbers: over 200,000 acres of rural reserves, and just under 30,000 of urban reserves. They described collaboration and compromises, and suggested that this was the plan that could best keep our region growing and livable, make good use of taxpayer money, and protect good farmland. But the significance of this decision requires that we look a little closer at what that means.

Growth is going to happen in the Portland region, and no one is out to stop it—certainly not us. We accepted Clackamas and Multnomah counties’ reserves proposals because they charted a balanced approach to growth, with more attention paid to enlivening existing neighborhoods and underutilized areas, instead of envisioning the same old expensive, consumptive sprawl.

But Washington County chose another route. They chose to designate urban reserves that include some of the county’s best farmland, for all the wrong reasons. They reached farther than state law and common sense would suggest is reasonable. They tried to work around it by designating vast swaths of land with no possibility of development as “rural reserves,” even though the state had long ago suggested that the rural reserve designation is not meant for areas that will never develop. But in almost every case where there was a real choice to be made, they chose to designate high-quality rural land for eventual urban expansion, or not to make a choice at all. And with its approval of this plan, Metro made the same choices.

This is not what Oregonians envisioned for the reserves. We have a more important choice to make. Will we continue to lead and hold to the core values that have guided Oregon and made it such an inspiring place to live? Or will we follow the path of so many other cities: putting more cars on our roads, more pollution in the air, and more pavement on top of soil that until recently produced food for us and the world? Will we make good use of taxpayer money, or will we continue to add to our infrastructure burden, even as Metro already acknowledges we are $10 billion short of the money local governments need simply to maintain and repair existing roads, sewers, and other infrastructure?

That sounds like an easy choice, but in practice it can be hard to get it right. We recognize that. We know that everyone in this region has worked hard on the reserves plan. And it’s certainly harder to stand up to political pressure and powerful interests than it is to simply give them the land they say they need—for now, anyway.

Yet Oregonians excel at making hard choices. We make the right choices, and we stick to them. It’s who we are, who we’ve been for over 150 years. We have a pioneering spirit, one that is innovative in our approach to living and working, that never wavers in its commitment to leave a high-quality place for future generations.

But Washington County and Metro’s proposal simply does not satisfy this spirit, just as it does not satisfy the letter of the laws that govern Oregon’s approach to using and managing our land.

In this appeal, we’re standing for an Oregon tradition of using our best assets very carefully, governed by a commitment to balance, to productivity, to making better places to live for everyone. We’re standing on behalf of several Washington County farmers whose livelihoods are directly affected by this proposal.

We’re standing not because it’s easy, but because it’s the right thing to do—for farmers working and living on the land today, for families who need safe routes to school and clean air to breath, and for the region’s future residents.

They’re the ones who will look back on our choices in fifty years. It’s our hope that they look back with pride, rather than regret. We have to get this right.

I thank you for standing with us in this choice, and for your commitment to a thriving, productive Oregon—now and always. 

Sincerely,

Jason Miner
Executive Director, 1000 Friends of Oregon