LULI Meets the UGB: Reflections from a "Farm Kid" Now Living in the City

Our Land Use Leadership Initiative (LULI) took a tour of the Portland Metro region's Urban Growth Boundary in Washington County on Thursday, February 21. 

Below, LULI participant Josh Baker reflects on what he learned, and participant Mark Gamba shares photos from the tour.

A surprise talent I’ll demonstrate to my crop of Portland friends is to identify specific breeds of sheep or cows as we drive out of the city and down into the Willamette Valley. I like to think I’m impressing them. More likely, they're probably just thinking that I’m weird and wondering why I know anything about breeds of farm animals. After all, I’m the one that can tell you how to traverse the Portland east side on bus and bike. I’ll regularly preach the merits of urban life, density, and livable neighborhoods. I’ll share stories of my time living in large urban centers near and far. 

However, at my roots I’m a farm kid. I’ve been to my fair share of livestock auctions and it would not be a stretch to say that my first friend as a little kid was a Holstein dairy cow that I named “No-No”. I was two years old and think I was trying to say “Moo-Moo”. Between my time spent growing up on a farm being exposed to rural issues and transitioning to life various cities and becoming more versed in the issues that affect city neighborhoods, I would like to think that I have a good understanding of the processes that affect rural and urban development and livability. 

Except, for all the time and different experiences that I’ve had in rural and city environments, I’ve never lived in or been exposed to the issues that exist around borderlines. The outer suburbs. The rural and urban reserves. The recently developed.  In Oregon, the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) area. In my inner SE Portland neighborhood, it’s easy to advocate for UGBs. UGBs make “Cool Communities: possible. The density they help to establish creates more opportunities for active transportation and provides for infrastructure that supports efficient growth, public transportation, and a cleaner environment. UGBs protect our rural landscape to allow occasional escape from the city. Yet, for me, it was hard to imagine how they work on the edge.

Luckily, I’m part of the Land Use Leadership Initiative (LULI). As we start to explore the interconnections between land use, transportation, and community inclusion we all had the opportunity to explore the UGB area in Washington County. Our first stop was in the Bethany area where we passed through areas that have been developed as the land they sit on has been brought into the UGB. Greg Malinowski, a Washington County Commissioner who got involved in politics because of land use issues, explained the processes and players involved in expanding the UGB. From my perspective, the entire process seems frustrating. I’m glad the process is there. However, Commissioner Malinowski talked about how he and other land use advocates worked for years to create a comprehensive plan to bring in land to develop while creating buffer zones between development and productive agricultural land. The entire time up against actors that have large amounts of financial and political influence. In the end, that buffer zone actually did not hold legal weight and will most likely be developed in the years to come. That was disheartening to hear. 

Yet the Commissioner also talked about how the process to bring land has improved over time. Requiring UGB changes to be recommended by the County Commission and not private landowners and developers has been one good step. When it comes down it though, the UGB is only about 35 years old. It is still a rather new concept. It is achieving many of its goals. Now though, how to do improve it? How do make sure that all interests and communities have a seat at the table when thinking about expanding the UGB? When developers need $50,000 of direct subsidies per house to build the infrastructure for land being developed in the expanded area--infrastructure that largely already exists in urban infill areas--how do we factor that cost into a decision to expand the UGB? When only five percent of new housing on new land brought into the UGB over the past 40 years is considered affordable housing, are we really meeting our region’s needs?  How do prevent “economic redlining” in the development near the boundary? How do we turn a great concept like urban and rural reserves into a practical and effective policy--for example, how do we make sure that we are creating rural reserves that contain important and productive areas that are actually at risk of development? How do we encourage more Orenco Station like projects in the outer areas of the urban region that incorporate affordable housing?

These are challenging questions and I don’t have the answers. Thankfully, there are organizations like 1000 Friends of Oregon and programs like LULI. I don’t think we’ll come out of the program with solid answers to these questions, but I do know that I’ll have a much better understanding of how these complex challenges play out in our own work and advocacy. I’m most definitely looking forward to continuing to delve into these challenges and others over the next few months with my fellow “LULIs”. If you think you have the answers, I know we’d like to hear from you!