Mia Nelson in News-Register: How Newberg's Planning Decisions Gambled With Its Future

Mia Nelson, 1000 Friends of Oregon's Willamette Valley Advocate, argues in a commentary for the Yamhill Valley News Register that the City of Newberg has delayed its urban growth boundary expansion and needed economic growth through unsound planning choices.

If the City wants to move forward, it should work with advocates and the land use system to achieve realistic projections of employment growth and land need.  Read her commentary below.

For the News-Register

1000 Friends of Oregon and Newberg Planning Director Barton Brierley agree on one thing: The city of Newberg has a shortage of industrial land, and long delays in addressing that shortage could harm the local economy. 

Attempts to blame land use advocates, even Oregon’s land use system itself, for the ongoing delays are misplaced. The city itself is responsible. Rather than recommending defensible, reasonable decisions that would lead to additional industrial land, city staff has repeatedly led Newberg into one brick wall after another.

One misstep came early last year after 1000 Friends advised the city that a county-adopted population forecast for Yamhill County and all its cities is a prerequisite for urban expansion. The rationale for the state’s requirement is clear: Without consideration of the broader countywide and statewide contexts, what should be a coordinated forecast becomes a disconnected and inaccurate compilation of individual city wish lists.

The consequences can be costly and difficult to remedy. Population forecasts are the cornerstone of all planning. Accuracy ensures that expensive investments in public infrastructure to develop new land uses make sense. 

Unfortunately, Newberg disregarded the law and adopted a land study prepared without the required forecast. Local farmers, residents and Friends of Yamhill County appealed. Predictably, the city’s decision was sent back by the court.

In response to the court’s decision, Newberg staff prepared a deeply flawed forecast for the county and its cities, then pressed the county commissioners to adopt it. 

Newberg assured the commissioners that the city would experience rapid growth. However, the calculations hinged on the defective assumption that Yamhill County would have 25,000 more people in 2020 than predicted by the official state estimate. 

Newberg’s forecast also included the irrational assumption that, during the next 20 years, rural population would fall by more than 6,000. In fact, rural areas have added about 1,000 residents during each decade since the 1970s. Furthermore, if Newberg’s proposed calculation of growth rates were extended out 38 years, the rural population would fall below zero.

Dr. Walter Lierman, an economist and professional forecaster, called Newberg’s proposal “nothing more than a subjective method of forecast — of the wild guessing variety ... riddled with recurring types of problems throughout.” He told the commissioners that “a complete re-do … would be in order.”

After the hearing, Commissioner Mary Stern concluded there were “serious issues with these numbers.” Commissioner Leslie Lewis said the proposal was illogical and based on “flawed data.” Both expressed concern that if the county approved the proposal, it would be overturned on appeal.

Given the high stakes for Newberg’s future, it was irresponsible to risk additional delay by pursuing a legally and logically defective strategy. Just as important, it was reckless with the public’s money. Investment in the right roads, sewers and schools in the right places depends on accurate population forecasting. 

Fortunately, the county commissioners displayed refreshing wisdom and common sense, voting 3-0 to start over with a new, professionally prepared forecast. Their tough love put a merciful end to a doomed approach, clearing the way to success. 

The Land Conservation and Development Commission should take a page from this playbook, and rethink its habit of approving city expansion plans over well-reasoned objections. LCDC does cities no favors by keeping fatally flawed proposals alive for years, instead of saying no early in the process. It should be guiding cities to an outcome that is both legal and provides true economic development. 

Too often, 1000 Friends has witnessed this type of train wreck. Often spurred by those who want to develop specific pieces of land, cities pursue defective urban growth boundary expansions onto Oregon’s best farmland. 

These cities consistently ignored objections based on solid evidence, charging ahead rather than correcting obvious defects. 

All suffered court setbacks, but refused to change their approach, instead making minor revisions and trying again. 

All publicly blamed our land use system for delays caused by their own poor decisions.

All had options to expand their urban growth boundaries in ways that were both legal and made sense on the ground, essentially walking through an open door.

Delays are not inevitable. Newberg and other cities should stop trying to walk through brick walls and start using the door.

Mia Nelson is the Willamette Valley Advocate for 1000 Friends of Oregon.

See the article on the News-Register's site, here.