Boundaries and Connections: Land Use Leadership Initiative Tours the UGB

Among the most well-known of Oregon’s land use planning tools, urban growth boundaries help ensure efficient growth while protecing the productivity of working farms and forests. But how effectively are they working in Oregon today? Last Friday, August 17, our Land Use Leadership Initiative participants went right to the edge to find out.

Outreach Director Tara Sulzen recounts the trip:

We headed out to the edge of the Portland Metro region’s urban growth boundary in Washington County. With temperatures hovering around 95 degrees that afternoon, we were grateful that most of the tour took place within the confines of air-conditioned vehicles, and in shady stopovers.

Our first stop was north of the Bethany area in an area that has already been brought into the Urban Growth Boundary and has yet to be developed. We met up with Washington County Commissioner Greg Malinowski. He told us about the high costs of providing infrastructure for new (sub)urban areas, and the lack of development that has occurred in some new areas of Metro’s urban growth boundary.  He discussed the difficulties with TriMet expanding transit service to new urban areas, and the challenge providing affordable housing because of the high costs of developing the area.

We then returned to the urbanized area north of Highway 26 to travel along the edge of the current UGB along West Union Road. The south side of the road was scattered with disconnected and incomplete sidewalks and bike lanes adjacent to new developments, while the area outside the UGB to the north remained in productive agriculture and rural uses. The contrast was stark. Participants discussed how buffers may be used to reduce conflicts between urban and rural uses, helping ensure that agriculture remains a viable industry in Washington County—which has Oregon’s 6th highest farm sales, even at the edge of the state’s largest urban region.

Next we stopped at West Union Elementary School, at the corner of Helvetia Road and West Union. The area has been designated as an urban reserve in Metro’s 50-year plan for urban and rural reserves. The vast factories and warehouses of Hillsboro’s high-tech sector were visible to the south across Highway 26, while thousands of acres of rolling farmland spread far to the North, and served as the backdrop for our discussion. Just a few months ago, we made a stop at the same corner on our Helvetia Pedalpalooza Bike Tour to hear from Helvetia Community Association members about their work to preserve farmland, build community and promote awareness of the rural and historic character of Helvetia. (Learn about that trip here.)

After touring through some of the proposed urban reserves north of 26, we crossed over the freeway to Hillsboro’s Orenco Station, where we walked the streets of this renowned transit-oriented, mixed-use, and mixed-income community. As we stood in the town square of Orenco, Brian Campbell, President of the Oregon Chapter of the American Planning Association, discussed the importance of Orenco Station as a model for a low-car lifestyle and walkability in a successful residential development.

Then Bob Stacey, former Executive Director of 1000 Friends and recently elected Metro Councilor, explained how Metro’s Climate Smart Communities project can help reduce pollution through transportation through improved community design, of which Orenco Station is a model. This initiative provides the opportunity for the region to evaluate its values and goals through scenario planning, and ultimately choose a plan that will help us to meet greenhouse gas reduction goals, while also prioritizing other community values such as improving access to services and jobs, cleaner air, and transportation choices.

Finally, CJ Gabbe, who recently left Fregonese Associates to pursue a doctorate in planning, discussed how other regions around the country are using scenario planning to save money on infrastructure costs, reduce congestion, promote infill and redevelopment, and revive downtowns.

The Portland region’s success in both urban and rural areas—fostering a terrific high-tech and creative economy while protecting an irreplaceable agricultural industry—has depended on both boundaries and connections. We create boundaries which limit sprawl, but we also work to create great places to live and work inside the boundaries, reducing the pressure to develop the resource lands outside. Residents in Washington County and across Oregon thus benefit both from great towns and transportation choices, and from easy access to productive farms and beautiful natural areas. While there are always challenges in deciding where the line should be drawn, Oregonians share a common goal to make the best use of our land. Urban growth boundaries are a key tool to help us do so in cities large and small across the state.

Learn more about the Land Use Leadership Initiative--applications for the 2013 class will be open soon!