Right-Sizing Population Forecasts

Mia Nelson

& what this means for UGB’s in Oregon

Year after year, 1000 Friends opposes persistent legislative efforts to weaken Oregon’s land use protections. Often, the best outcome one can hope for is preservation of what we already have; only rarely is the program significantly strengthened. That’s why the 2013 passage of House Bill 2253, which created a statewide population forecasting system, was such an important victory for us, and for Oregon. 

Our land use system confines most growth to cities while preserving farms and forests. The program further protects rural lands by allowing urban growth boundary (UGB) expansions only when cities have a genuine need for additional space.

Cities use population projections to estimate the amount of growth they must accommodate – the higher the forecast, the more likely a UGB expansion becomes. In fact, inflated forecasts have historically been a major driver of urban sprawl.

Prior to the passage of HB 2253, Oregon law gave counties the job of creating forecasts for cities within their jurisdictions. There were no clear requirements for methodology or staff qualifications. Since final decisions were made by elected officials on the county board, forecasting efforts were also susceptible to political pressure.

Through the years, 1000 Friends documented many instances of grossly inflated & otherwise inaccurate forecasts. For example, Eugene-Springfield’s 1995 UGB evaluation overestimated the 2015 population by almost 50,000 people. Forecasting errors can be unintentional, but there have been deliberate attempts to inflate the predictions by expansion-minded cities and rural landowners at the edge of the UGB.

The old system was also costly and dysfunctional for cities and counties:  Counties, which did not need such forecasts for their own planning purposes, were reluctant to spend county funds preparing city forecasts. Fewer than half of all counties had updated their forecasts within the last 10 years. This left cities without the forecasts they needed to do critical urban planning.

In 2011, 1000 Friends began working with the Department of Land Conservation and Development, the League of Oregon Cities, the Association of Oregon Counties, and others, on a better approach to forecasting.  This core group created the legislative concept that became HB 2253. As part of the rulemaking advisory committee, 1000 Friends also helped craft the administrative rules that would implement the new system.

HB 2253 gave all forecasting responsibility to the professional demographers at Portland State University’s Population Research Center. Every city and county outside of the Metro area will receive a new 50-year forecast every four years. Prior to forecasting each area, the PSU demographers conduct research and collect public input. The forecasts are fact-based and impartial, and are not subject to appeal.

Thus far, southern, central and eastern Oregon have received PSU forecasts; the Willamette Valley will be forecast this spring. The results have been encouraging, because they demonstrate the significance of objective, professional forecasting. For example, PSU predicted about 12,000 fewer people in Douglas County than a county-prepared forecast that 1000 Friends helped challenge and overturn in 2011. In Lane County, PSU predicted about 24,000 fewer people in outlying smaller cities than the previous forecast adopted in 2008. The Lane County correction alone is enough to spare thousands of acres of Oregon countryside from unnecessary UGB expansions, and cities and their residents from unnecessary expenditures of money for roads and pipes to serve these areas. The benefits will only multiply as PSU continues to update old, inaccurate forecasts.

At the same time, cities, counties, schools, fire districts and state agencies will reap significant savings. PSU’s forecasts will be provided free of charge every four years, and the increased accuracy will assist right-sized infrastructure planning. Overbuilding, especially outwards, wastes more than land – everything from new sewer plants to elementary schools relies on quality forecasting. In addition, since all agencies in Oregon will be using the same forecasts, planning activities will be coordinated on every level.

HB 2253 is truly a win-win, and a model for how to ensure the long-term sustainability of Oregon’s vitally important land use program – it strengthens farm and forest protections while also saving tax dollars, streamlining regulatory compliance, and improving planning outcomes. 1000 Friends is proud to have been part of creating this solution, and we look forward to more collaborative work in the future, to improve other aspects of the program.