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Some see conservation easements as compromise, others say it could present challenges for infrastructure efficiency.

Editor's note: This is the second installment in a series about the future of the Stafford area.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - A fence separates the property owned by Charlie Hoff and already-developed property in Stafford.

Lake Oswego resident Charlie Hoff had a vision. When he purchased about 40 acres of land in Stafford Hamlet more than 40 years ago with his partner — who has since died — he wanted to eventually build an assisted living facility on his property. He imagined using the entire space to provide various senior-related housing options with considerable open space, creating synergy for a senior living area.

"That's still my goal," said Hoff, adding that it is unclear whether that type of development would eventually be allowed.

His land currently is zoned for exclusive farm use but also is designated as urban reserve (meaning it could be brought into the urban growth boundary within the next 50 years). A number of landowners, including Hoff, continue to push for the ability to develop in the area.

But the problem that many landowners and developers are running into in Stafford Hamlet right now is uncertainty.

Stafford Hamlet, a rural unincorporated area totaling about 6,000 acres located near West Linn, Wilsonville, Tualatin and Lake Oswego, recently agreed to a new community plan that prioritized applying conservation easements broadly within the region, which, if actualized, would bar development from taking place even if the urban growth boundary is expanded to include the area. The hamlet plans to present the plan to surrounding cities in the coming months.

The future of Stafford has been debated — whether in neighborly disputes, hamlet meetings, City Hall discussions or even the courts — for decades, and two separate intergovernmental agreements adopted in 2017 and 2018 did little to quell those arguments.

In a multipart series over the coming weeks, Pamplin Media Group is exploring the use and feasibility of conservation easements, alternative plans for Stafford and more.

Developing the Stafford area

The housing crisis in the metro area is no secret and experts say Stafford Hamlet could provide much needed space for housing.

"Generally we consider the Stafford triangle a very well-situated area that could accommodate future open space and transportation routes and housing," said Roseann Johnson, assistant director of government affairs with the Homebuilders Association of Metro Portland.

Much of Stafford sits on a steep grade, which severely restricts the area of developable land and makes bringing infrastructure such as roads, sewer, stormwater and other utilities difficult and expensive. But Johnson said developers are well-equipped to handle such challenges.

"Steep slopes can be engineered appropriately and take into account natural hazards," Johnson said. "Those things are already built into local land-use planning codes and developers work with those day in and day out."

Johnson said developers have worked in areas similar to Stafford Hamlet before, taking into account challenges with topography.

"(It) certainly can be done," she said.

Kent Ziegler, a development consultant in the area, said building up Stafford Hamlet is a "no brainer."

"To me, the Stafford triangle is not an expansion of the urban growth boundary — to me it's an infill," Ziegler said. "You've already got a lot of transportation infrastructure built with I-205. I know they still got to add the third lane (on I-205) from Stafford to Oregon City, but by having all the right-of-way and all the infrastructure already in place, you're way ahead of the ball game as opposed to going out farther toward Molalla, farther out toward Damascus. That requires huge infrastructure investments."

Johnson said the expansion of I-205 is close to being shovel-ready. The Oregon Department of Transportation currently estimates the first phase of construction — which does not include Stafford — will begin in 2022.

"There's already a transportation overpass from the freeway and from the other part of Stafford into the lower part of Stafford from the north to the south over the freeway," Johnson said. "It's just seen as the biggest opportunity for additional master planned communities in the area."

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Stafford Hamlet is situated between Lake Oswego, Tualatin and West Linn. Pictured here is a view facing Lake Oswego and a fence that separates the property owned by Charlie Hoff and already-developed property.Burton Weast, a former West Linn resident and partial property owner in Stafford, said basically anything can be developed "if you're willing to spend enough." But from a developer's perspective, he said, if the land is too expensive then you can't make a profit when you sell it or put homes on it. That means developers will seek out land where it is reasonable and relatively easy to construct infrastructure.

Derby said there are concerns statewide for affordable housing, which won't be possible if agencies are making it difficult to produce needed housing.

Derby said affordable housing could be possible in Stafford but it depends on what the cities want to see come to fruition in the area and the definition of "affordable."

He said it isn't that "affordable" homes have to be created in Stafford, rather "if you create homes at some other part of the market, it opens up homes typically for the other lower market rate products."

Derby said the creation of homes at varying price levels contributes to overall affordability in the region by increasing housing stock, but there's no way, Derby said, that affordable housing can be produced on land that's significantly expensive.

"A lot of that land (on the east side of Stafford) is hilly and a lot of that land would be expensive to serve," said Weast, adding that it would not be difficult to draw up plans showing where significant housing could be developed in Stafford and where a significant amount of land could be left for nonurban uses. He said there's been attempts at that but no one has ever done anything about it.

"I just don't get governments that think they can just kick the can down the road," Weast said. "I just think it's irresponsible for elected officials to do that, and I've watched it going on in Stafford for, oh my gosh, 30 years."

Ziegler said he's seen changes over the years in the types of housing people desire. Nowadays, he said, people are looking for pedestrian-friendly village centers — neighborhoods that have a mix of residential, open space and commercial uses that provide services to a community within walking distance. He said these types of communities that provide multigenerational housing are the future "and I think that's going to evolve," he said. "Most people can't afford a new house anymore."

The Oregon Legislature attempted to address the shortage of affordable housing in 2019 with House Bill 2001, which pushed cities to move away from single-family zoning.

{img:302708}"We're trying to find a way to utilize what we have better," said Ziegler, adding that Stafford Hamlet could provide the perfect development to fit that mindset.

Weast said the land in the Borland Road area near the traffic circle and freeway entrance is perfect for commercial development.

"Metro designated it as a town center in their planning and that should not be forgotten in all this," Weast said. "Because of the inaction by all the parties here, Borland is starting to get developed in uses other than commercial industrial land."

With the eventual development of homes also comes increased traffic.

Dennis Derby, who along with 10 other people owns a small portion of land in Stafford on Johnson Road, said there likely would be significant traffic impacts in the Stafford area if it's developed with high-density housing.

"I think the future traffic patterns in this country or the world are going to change in many remarkable ways … and it's hard to predict, but obviously homes and jobs create traffic," said Derby, adding that this is why concept planning is important. "Growth is very managed and it's done in a certain economic and efficient way, hopefully."

Easements could be compromise

Ziegler said it's important to strike a balance between development and preserving land for open space or agriculture. He said he's familiar with using conservation easements and thinks it's a good idea.

Conservation easements add further agricultural protections to land. A landowner has to sign an agreement with a holder of the easement (often a land trust or government agency) relegating the land exclusively for agricultural use in perpetuity. The landowner can then receive a payment for the easement based on an appraisal of the property. The property value typically declines significantly once the land cannot be developed, but agencies like the Natural Resources Conservation Service can help cover the lost profits.

"I think conservations can work, but they also need to be run parallel with what other uses might need to go through that area of the land, based upon topography and other physical constraints that the area might already have in existence," Ziegler said.

The key, to him, is the fact that there already is significant pressure for housing affordability in the metro area.

"We have a housing crisis right now and I read about how little the supply of land is, and being a developer for 40 years, I'm very much involved with the urban growth boundary," said Ziegler, adding that it's important to master plan Stafford because there's a shortage of buildable land in the area. He said it's important to identify where the best places for roads are based upon the topography.

Ziegler said the location of transportation infrastructure and parks also needs to be taken into consideration to form a functionable and marketable vision for the area.

"If you start putting major challenges in the way of long-term planning for property that's designated for urban development, it raises the price of the product up even higher because you're not able to do it in the most efficient manner," Ziegler said.

Gregg Weston, longtime Stafford resident and the chief engineering manager at 3J Consulting who outlined the work and investment it would take to properly develop Stafford, said during a meeting hosted by the Stafford Land Owners Association and Borland Neighborhood Association in 2018 that the developable area in Stafford is approximately 1,452 acres, out of the more than 6,000 acres of land in that area.

He added that it would likely take about $2.7 billion to complete the infrastructure and suggested that cost could be split 60/40 between developers and the three surrounding cities of Lake Oswego, Tualatin and West Linn.

If a landowner wants to set aside more greenbelt than what's already set aside, it also would increase the cost of infrastructure, Ziegler added.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Local developers share their perspective on the importance of developing housing in Stafford Hamlet.The affordable housing component then becomes a larger challenge — in part due to the difficulties of building sewer and water services for various uses.

Johnson said that the power of individual property owners to impose easements on their land could cause the area to be "less well-planned and less well-organized for future livability and functionality of the area and the region."

She said she believes there could be a place for conservation easements, but that it should be thought of in a holistic context, working with all stakeholders — the three surrounding cities, Clackamas County and Metro — to plan it efficiently.

The question that comes into play, she said, is what is the best use for that land.

While conservation easements may have a place in Stafford Hamlet, Johnson said the state and Metro already decided that the future will be to accommodate for more housing.

To help resolve the ongoing conflicts in the hamlet, Tualatin, West Linn and Lake Oswego, Clackamas and Metro forged a five-party intergovernmental agreement for planning in the area and then a new agreement was formed just between Tualatin, West Linn and Lake Oswego.

These cities would need to sign off on any kind of urban development in the hamlet, and the IGA further adds that no city can apply for expansion until the I-205 widening project has been designed and fully funded.

"HBA and the building industry want to be part of that future and that solution to providing additional housing and livability in that area," Johnson said.

Hoff and Derby see conservation easements as problematic. Derby said the easements could mess up the efficient implementation of utilities. If conservation efforts are simply to block future development, Derby said, it might be fine depending on the specific parcel of land the easement would be applied to — but an issue arises if someone needs to have roads, sewer lines or water services through a specific area.

Weast, who was a lobbyist for the League of Oregon cities and the HBA when the state's land-use laws were written, said the state statute defines prime farmland as land with a certain soil type in a predominantly farming area. Weast said this is confusing because there are a few farms in Stafford Hamlet that are doing well.

The theory behind Oregon land-use planning, Weast said, was that it would protect prime farmland from urban development and sprawl by using urban growth boundaries based on a 20-year growth supply of land. But land-use laws rely on cities to be the primary gatekeepers for development.

Weast said the lack of planning action being taken by the three surrounding cities has resulted in a stalemate.

"I think some of these folks are turning to conservation easements because they don't know what the future is," Weast said. "They don't know what the plan is for Stafford and they're grasping at straws trying to protect their property."

Weast added that this is the opposite of what the Oregon land-use plan was supposed to be about. Rather, it was intended to bring certainty about what would happen to land through the planning process.

"Stafford is a poster child for the failure of the Oregon land-use system," Weast said.

Weast and Derby said it's possible to have urban development while still preserving farmland in the Stafford basin.

"That kind of plan would result in most of ... the highest density of development being in the south portion of Stafford along the Tualatin River," said Weast, adding that there are other well-situated areas around Lake Oswego and West Linn. "So it is possible to develop Stafford in a way I think the majority of people would be happy with, except for those people who are totally opposed to all growth — they will never be happy."

Derby said if anything in this region is to be developed there needs to be more planning.

"Nothing can happen; you can't make those kind of decisions that would provide future opportunities for either housing or whatever if you can't do the concept planning," Derby added. "It would be really important in the planning world if the basin concept planning was done concurrently with ODOT's 205 expansion planning. Those really should be tied together, and again, Lake Oswego and West Linn are trying to make sure they aren't."

Weast, who now lives in Nevada, owns a 3% share in a 32-acre property on Johnson Road. The property originally was purchased by the recently deceased Herb Koss — a well-known developer in West Linn who most recently resided in Lake Oswego.

"I don't think any of us were expecting an immediate return, but also I don't think any of us were expecting 20 years later that Stafford would still be out of the urban growth boundary," Weast said.

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