Washington County saw a sharp increase in population over the past decade, up 13.5% since 2010.
But it wasn't Beaverton or Hillsboro — the county's most populous cities — that saw the most significant flock of new residents. In fact, much of the population growth occurred in unincorporated urban communities north of U.S. Highway 26.
Roughly 40%, or 212,000, of Washington County residents live in urban unincorporated Washington County, said county spokesperson Philip Bransford, making it the Oregon county with the largest number of residents living outside an incorporated city.
"Urban unincorporated," sometimes shortened to urban unincorp, defines areas within the urban growth boundary, but outside an incorporated city.
Urbanized communities like Cedar Mill and Bethany have seen steady population growth in the past two decades. In 2000, Cedar Mill's population was at 12,597 people. In 2020, it grew to 17,259 people, a 37% increase.
Bethany's population has exploded in the past two decades — more than doubling, according to the latest U.S. Census numbers, from 13,195 in 2000 to 31,350 in 2020.
It was originally the intent of lawmakers that unincorporated areas would eventually either incorporate or get annexed into surrounding cities.
But annexation turned into a touchy subject in the late 1990s and early 2000s when Beaverton annexed areas linked to the city by Southwest Cedar Hills Boulevard, Northwest Cornell Road and Southwest Barnes Road, in a practice known as "cherry stem" annexation. That prompted legislation in 2005 to ban these types of island annexations.
Some have argued in the past that urban areas like Bethany do have the existing infrastructure to incorporate. But even if they can incorporate, should they?
Lori Manthey-Waldo, a longtime Bethany resident and community activist, once pondered these same questions.
Cities by choice?
More than a decade ago, Manthey-Waldo launched a community campaign she dubbed "Cedar Creek," which was meant to represent the area from Cedar Mill to Rock Creek.
The purpose wasn't necessarily to form a new city, but rather to explore the pros and cons of incorporation, annexing urban unincorporated areas into another city, or keeping things as they are.
The slogan "A City by Choice" reflected a growing anxiety among some north-of-26 residents that they may find their neighborhoods annexed into Hillsboro and Beaverton.
Most importantly, Manthey-Waldo and other community stakeholders wanted to educate people on what living in an unincorporated urban area actually means.
"The majority of the people that move here to the suburbs think they live in Portland, Oregon," she said. "So the group was more about educating and letting people understand what they were paying for, and … how their government worked."
Unlike cities and towns, unincorporated communities aren't governed by a mayor or council; they don't have a city hall; and so they are administered directly by the county.
Washington County does have 14 community participation organizations (CPOs) that serve as a sort of liaison between residents and the county government, especially in areas that aren't incorporated or are divided between multiple jurisdictions. Some CPOs are more active than others, though, and they rely on volunteers to operate.
In full-service cities, like Forest Grove, residents pay a tax that goes to the city's general fund to fund services like fire, police and parks.
Urban unincorporated communities like Aloha, Bethany and Cedar Mill, meanwhile, get their amenities from special service districts like Washington County's Enhanced Sheriff's Patrol District, Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, the Tualatin Valley Water District, and the Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District — the latter two of which also serve the city of Beaverton.
In 2009, representatives of the Cedar Creek campaign asked Washington County to fund a feasibility study to explore a best path forward for urban unincorporated communities, but the county would not even agree to fund the study, or "review" the possibility of getting outside funding, Manthey-Waldo said.
Best path forward
Virginia Bruce has been researching the best path forward for governing Washington County's urban unincorporated areas for well over a decade. She chairs CPO 1, which represents Cedar Mill, Cedar Hills and Bonny Slope West. She also is the publisher and editor of the Cedar Mill News , a monthly news magazine that covers the Cedar Mill area.
In 2007, she organized a six-part series exploring the same questions as Manthey-Waldo, including: "What do cities have that we don't?"
For one thing, cities provide more robust avenues for public participation, where residents have more of a voice in how their communities are run, according to one of the articles published in March 2008.
In Beaverton, for example, there are 11 neighborhood association committees, representing an average of 8,000 citizens each. CPOs generally represent much larger areas, which Bruce said proves challenging when trying to support all the needs and concerns of every individual.
Bruce also argues that cities are typically more inclined to upgrade existing urban infrastructure.
"The county is still extremely short of sidewalks in the urban unincorporated areas, because they weren't required to be built during the time that most of the area was developed," she said.
Bruce also argues that urban unincorp often lacks community spaces, events and a sense of overall identity.
"The county doesn't put on picnics and parades and stuff like that," Bruce said. "I started the Cedar Mill Cider Festival partly for that reason — that the community doesn't have any community building activities. And that's not trivial. People want to be part of the community."
But the need for those small-town spaces don't necessarily need to lead to incorporation.
Bethany Village, a shopping center and residential community at the junction of Northwest Bethany Boulevard and Laidlaw Road, is arranged like a traditional town center, with its own library, main street and plaza. The mixed-use development even has a Washington County Sheriff's Office station.
Roy Kim, the developer behind the Bethany Village project, said his company hired a town planner to design a community with density and a central core, rather than having business and amenities sprawled out.
When Kim first envisioned the project back in the '90s, he said, he wanted to create a space where community members could shop and eat, but also a place where they could gather for events.
"We thought that was missing from typical suburban living situations, where you go to a shopping center, get your groceries, go to the bank, get your dry cleaning and go home," Kim said. "We thought there was an opportunity to do more than that."
But Bruce also doesn't believe the solution for these communities is to necessarily annex into another city or even incorporate.
She points to Damascus as an example. Residents voted to incorporate in 2004 to have more local decision-making about land use, but residents quickly soured on their new city government. Damascus voted to voluntarily dissolve in 2016, restoring its status as an urban incorporated area of Clackamas County.
Bruce does see some improvement on Washington County's end, as far as addressing the ever-expanding needs of urban unincorp. She points to the county's hiring of a new economic development director to help support businesses unincorporated areas.
Matt Craigie, who was hired in February, said trying to coordinate economic development in areas without established connections between business owners and a local city government definitely poses a unique set of challenges.
"To that aim, I've been working to develop relationships with business and community organizations that work with or represent businesses and communities within the county's UUAs," he said, using an acronym for urban unincorporated areas. "For example, just last week, I presented at the Aloha Business Association. Late next month, I will meet with representatives of the Raleigh Hills Business Association. I've also been in communication with organizations like the county's Chambers of Commerce, the SBDC, and CBOs like Adelante Mujeres and Centro de Prosperidad to look for ways that we can collaboratively coordinate economic development programs and provide assistance and resources to these communities."
So, will the conversation of incorporation happen again in the north-of-26 parts of Washington County? Manthey-Waldo isn't so sure.
"I don't know. I would love to say yes, but I don't know," she said. "I think the generations are pretty happy. I mean, the American dream is to have your own house with a really nice fence, and a nice school for your kids, and a football field to play in.
"And you have those here."
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