Washington County rural reserve change dies quickly
SALEM — A proposal to reclassify 1,700 acres in Washington County from a rural reserve to an urban reserve was killed shortly out of the gate.
Under House Bill 4075, land northwest of Hillsboro could have been included in the Portland metropolitan area's "urban growth boundary." The plan called for land between Northwest Glencoe and Jackson School roads, south of North Plains, to be eligible for development.
Without the bill's passage, though, and barring another legislative intervention, the land will be shielded from development for 50 years.
The bill was sponsored by two Democratic lawmakers, Hillsboro Rep. Janeen Sollman and Scappoose Sen. Betsy Johnson.
After the bill's first public hearing on Feb. 8 before the House Agriculture Committee, proponents and critics of the bill learned it would go no further.
The committee's chair, Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, said the bill was too "problematic" for a thorough vetting during 2018's short legislative session.
"This bill will not be moving forward this session in this committee," Clem said.
Many of the arguments for and against HB 4075 were familiar in Oregon's ongoing land use debate.
Supporters claimed more development in burgeoning Washington County would fuel Oregon's economic "engine" of high tech development, which shouldn't be sacrificed for the "sacred cow" of preserving farmland.
Norman Ralston, president of the Northwest Hillsboro Alliance, supported the measure, arguing that the acrage would be of "considerably better use" if it could be used to plan for Washington County's inevitable growth.
"A community that will need homes, parks, trails, school(s), stores, efficient transportation and jobs," Ralston said. "Northwest Hillsboro is ideal for this."
Detractors argued that urbanization should become more condensed before spreading out, saving not only farmland but the agricultural infrastructure — such as machinery and input suppliers — needed to sustain the industry.
However, the discussion over urban and rural reserves also has another dimension due to the "grand bargain" struck by lawmakers four years ago.
The concept of reserves became part of Oregon's land use law in 2007, when then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski signed a bill aiming to improve the metropolitan region's long-term growth planning.
In 2012, the state's Land Conservation and Development Commission approved the rural and urban reserve designation developed by the regional government Metro and the counties of Washington, Clackamas and Multnomah.
Two years later, though, the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled that LCDC had made several errors in its approval, which threatened to greatly prolong the reserve designation process.
That court decision prompted Oregon lawmakers in 2014 to pass a compromise bill establishing urban and rural reserves, effectively bypassing the bureaucratic process for such designations.
Opponents of HB 4075 claim that "a deal is a deal," but if lawmakers go down the road of altering the 1,700 acres in Washington County, it will be difficult to reject future adjustment requests.
"This break of a settlement jeopardizes the reserves," said Mary Kyle McCurdy, deputy director of the 1,000 Friends of Oregon conservation group.
The president of the Forest Park Neighborhood Association, Carol Chesarek, also wrote a letter to the House Agriculture Committee decrying the bill.
"Local governments, farmers, foresters, and citizens were promised that urban and rural reserves would provide long-term (40 to 50 years) certainty," wrote Chesarek. "Introduction and consideration of legislation like HB 4075 breaks that promise and eliminates the promised certainty. This is harmful to both urban and rural areas. If the Legislature were to start changing reserve boundaries to help small groups achieve windfall profits, there is no end to it."
Steve Callaway, mayor of Hillsboro, acknowledged his city signed onto the "grand bargain" in 2014, but he said it didn't expect so much land to be taken off the market over the next four years.
Hillsboro no longer has enough acres in urban reserves to adequately plan for the future, he said.
Jon Chandler, chief executive officer of the Oregon Home Builders Association, said that "planning theory" in this case has run up against reality, which justifies an adjustment.
"Things change and these assumptions can't be sacrosanct," he said.
The bill was unpopular with the Metro Council, which unanimously urged legislators to reject the bill.
In a letter to state lawmakers, Metro Councilor Bob Stacey called it "ill-advised legislation," saying that site-specific land use designations was "destructive" to the land use planning process.
"The bottom line is that the Grand Bargain was exactly what its name implies: a bargain, a deal," Stacey wrote. "Had Hillsboro insisted in 2014 that the land it wants to redesignate today remain an urban reserve, no bargain would have been reached, and we would be managing the UGB the old way: with no urban reserves at all in Washington County, based entirely on farmland quality, without consideration of what land is best for urbanization. More to the point, bringing forward divisive legislation to break this long-term deal so soon after agreeing to it, without ever bringing the issue to the regional table, fundamentally calls into question Hillsboro's commitment to regional decision-making."
The North Plains City Council also opposed HB 4075, arguing that a buffer between North Plains and Hillsboro was essential to the city's plans.
"North Plains has always expressed a position that it did not want to be a part of Hillsboro," wrote City Manager Andy Varner in his own letter to Clem and the Agriculture Committee. "North Plains planning efforts ... reflect that fact. This legislation will result in North Plains being known as North Hillsboro."
Editor's note: This story has been updated as of Tuesday, Feb. 13, with more information on the reserve areas, as well as additional testimony. Geoff Pursinger and Mark Miller contributed to this report.