The Metro regional government's most recent urban growth boundary expansion — which ushered in over 2,100 acres of new residential land in Wilsonville, Beaverton, Hillsboro and King City — is facing a legal challenge at the Oregon Court of Appeals.
Housing Land Advocates, a charitable corporation that focuses on land use policy and advocates for affordable housing, appealed the Land Conservation and Development Commission's decision to approve Metro's 2018 boundary expansion, arguing that the regional government needs to address housing shortages inside the existing growth boundary before expanding it. HLA asked the court to either remand or reverse the decision.
If successful, it could mean that Wilsonville's Frog Pond South and East neighborhoods, which would greenlight at least 1,325 homes near Advance Road, may not be allowed to be developed for the foreseeable future. Oral arguments for the case took place in March and those involved say a determination may not be reached for many months. The verdict could then be appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court.
HLA asserted that Metro violated statewide planning goal 14, which states that "prior to expanding an urban growth boundary, local governments shall demonstrate that needs cannot reasonably be accommodated on land already inside the urban growth boundary."
"This requirement is the beating heart of the Oregon land use program's commitment to assuring compact and efficient use of Oregon's existing urban areas while protecting the state's rural resource lands and natural areas," an HLA legal brief read.
The crux of the issue is a provision in Metro's charter that prohibits the regional government from requiring cities to increase densities in existing single-family neighborhoods, but HLA argued that the aforementioned statewide goal superseded Metro's charter.
Metro, however, cited an Oregon statute that says a local government can either amend its growth boundary or increase density when housing need exceeds housing supply and that the goal 14 argument doesn't hold up.
"That has never been the law in Oregon and petitioner cites no authority directly supporting its theory that Goal 14 requires cities to increase residential density prior to completing an inventory of housing capacity under ORS 197.296(3)(a) or as an alternative to expanding the UGB," Metro wrote in its answering brief to the court.
Metro also said that while 6,100 needed single-family units over a 20-year span could not be accommodated inside the boundary in part due to the charter provision, 92,300 needed units could be — meaning they aren't far off from being able to reasonably accommodate housing needs within the boundary.
Metro also required the production of middle housing units like duplexes and triplexes in expanded areas, including Frog Pond East and South.
LCDC sided with Metro on this issue, saying the fact that the government "anticipates meeting 97 percent of the projected housing need over the next 20 years within the existing UGB" indicates that it is making efficient use of land within the boundary.
During the hearing, HLA attorney Michael Reeder said the precedent set by LCDC's decision would lead to modern-day redlining — a process commonly associated with banks denying mortgage lending to people of color who were trying to buy homes in certain neighborhoods — and establish internal growth boundaries because existing single-family neighborhoods would be effectively exempt from accommodating future housing needs.
Under the current growth boundary process, cities apply for expansion and Metro decides whether to approve plans. Metro formed this procedure after previous expansions failed to produce results in areas lacking government leadership or proper preparation, according to a 2019 Metro report.
"For growth at the urban edge, it all starts with a strong city proposal for an expansion," the report read.
In an interview, HLA President Jennifer Bragar said this process leads certain areas to not have to participate in the production of more and cheaper housing. She cited Sherwood, West Linn and Lake Oswego as examples of cities with existing neighborhoods that are sorely lacking in housing diversity.
Bragar cited disadvantaged populations potentially needing to commute to work in faraway city centers, thus increasing cost of living and carbon emissions, as a downsides of urban sprawl through boundary expansion.
Alternatively, she said: "When you have higher density you get lower rent in those areas, lower housing costs because you're spreading the cost of land over more units."
In the hearing, Metro attorney Roger Alfred said Metro isn't ignoring the significant source of capacity within current urban growth areas but is simply limited in what it can do because of the charter. Alfred also defended the regional government's housing efforts, saying that it has taken considerable steps to increase housing production in the region.
"(In 2011) Metro both expanded the boundary by I think 1,500 acres and also adopted efficiency measures in the form of functional plan requirements that would both encourage and also require cities to promote density, for example on places like Division Street or East Burnside (in Portland) around Sandy where you're seeing all of that development," he said.
However, Judge Rex Armstrong indicated that, in his view, Metro's past actions weren't relevant to the case at hand.
Wilsonville City Council is scheduled to deliberate Monday, April 5, on whether to hire Angelo Planning Group to help conduct master planning efforts for Frog Pond East and South. The council packet simply stated that if HLA's case proves successful, the timeline for the project may not move forward as expected. Planning efforts, however, are financed by a Metro grant. The Wilsonville government's legal team signed on to Metro's brief in the case but did not submit its own arguments.
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