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Hillsboro is one of four cities in Washington County opposed to new climate rules. The coalition seems to be growing.

COURTESY PHOTO: CITY OF HILLSBORO - Hillsboro is one of four cities in Washington County to join a coalition that says it will sue Oregon over new land use and transportation rules passed this year. The coalition has nine cities across the state so far, and they expect that number to grow.

While no lawsuit has yet been filed, Hillsboro and other metro-area communities say that the coalition of cities that oppose Oregon's new zoning and transportation rules — and have threatened to sue the state over them — is growing, and they expect it to continue to.

But what do the new rules do, and why are a growing number of communities so opposed to them?

The statewide rules came about after a 2020 executive order from Gov. Kate Brown, which directed the Department of Land Use Conservation and Development (DLCD) to draft a framework that would get Oregon on track to meet its emissions reduction and housing goals.

The result is called "Climate Friendly and Equitable Communities" — essentially a new blueprint by which Oregon's cities must craft their development codes and transportation plans. The "Climate Friendly and Equitable" rules will take effect at the start of the next year.

Through the new rules, the DLCD is directing cities and other local jurisdictions to change their codes to prioritize more public transportation and denser housing developments. It used studies conducted nationally and statewide to show that most cities' codes are inequitable and lead to an over-reliance on personal vehicle ownership and use, as well as single-family housing.

The state will also require cities that aren't already in compliance to set new parking lot standards, set parameters for road improvement projects and make efforts to encourage more walking, biking and public transit use, and allow more housing density.

The set of rules also includes new standards for electric vehicle charging infrastructure on new developments and push cities to craft their transportation system plans around reducing gas-powered vehicle travel. PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO BY JONATHAN HOUSE - The new rules from Oregon's Department of Land Conservation & Development prioritize public transit and aim to get more gas-powered vehicles off the streets.

Cities push back

Cities in the Portland metro area are already partway toward compliance with the "Climate Friendly" rules. The recently adopted 2040 Growth Plan by the regional Metro Council already bakes in a lot of aspects of the statewide rules, like updated vehicle emissions standards and minimum housing density.

But some elements of the housing, parking and transportation rule requirements do still apply to communities under Metro's purview.

City officials and lobbyists who oppose the statewide rules say adhering to all the standards would be difficult or impossible. They say that the DLCD didn't do enough to address their concerns when drafting the rules.

By threatening the state with litigation, cities like Hillsboro, Tualatin, Sherwood, Cornelius and others hope to force the state to hit "pause" on its enforcement of the "Climate Friendly and Equitable Communities" rules, which were approved this year.

"We really support the goals and outcomes that are being chased after, but it matters how you get there," said Andy Smith, Hillsboro's government relations manager. "If cities are going to be the implementing agencies for the rule, then it's wise to listen to the experts at the cities … about how to get there the right way together."

The DLCD countered that it held over 200 public meetings and community conversations about the rulemaking and heard from thousands of Oregonians. It responded to the concerns raised by cities by adjusting the rules that were proposed in 2021 to those that were adopted this year.

"Community engagement is always a work in progress and something DLCD takes very seriously," said Kevin Young, a senior urban planner with the state agency. "The department consistently looks for more and better ways to engage communities of all kinds in our work. We are continuing to engage directly with community leaders, community-based organizations, stakeholders, and advocacy organizations as we move forward with our implementation work."

An order, not a bill

So far, the coalition that has committed to suing the state over these rules includes nine cities, four of which are in Washington County and six of which are in the Portland metro area. They include Hillsboro, Cornelius, Tualatin, Sherwood, Happy Valley, Troutdale, Keizer, Springfield and Medford.

For Portland-area communities, concerns range from updated parking standards, which place lower maximum parking lot standards on new developments, to specifics about how cities must update their transportation plans. PMG FILE PHOTO - Officials in the Portland metro area who are opposed to Oregon's new 'Climate Friendly Equitable Communities' rules say that its prioritization on public transit doesn't work unless there is also investment in more public transit lines to the suburbs.

Pamplin Media Group will dig into the specifics in future stories, but this article will focus on the overview of what local officials categorized as an ineffective outreach process surrounding these rules and what drove them to threaten legal action.

For one, they say that rules this sweeping should have been enacted by the Legislature, not by an executive order.

The Hillsboro City Council in early September decided to join the growing coalition of cities who are opposed to the rules — not because of the goals behind them, but because of the process to put them together and the realities of implementing them in time.

While the DLCD says that it held numerous community conversations with local officials about the rules and adjusted the framework accordingly, local officials say that the state's response to their feedback was minimal at best in a lot of instances.

"It's true that they received a lot of comments, but they didn't necessarily respond to them," said Chris Crean with the firm of Beery Elsner & Hammond, which contracts with both Hillsboro and Cornelius. "The big changes that we requested, we never did receive any kind of material communications from the department."

The DLCD's Young pointed to numerous changes made between the proposed rules in 2021 and what has come out this year, in response to concerns from the affected communities.

The state extended the deadline by which it expects local governments to implement the rules, Young said. He also said the DLCD eliminated or weakened parking provisions that it had originally proposed, and it made some of the rules more flexible in response to community concerns.

"Additionally, with adoption of the rules, the commission directed the staff to monitor implementation and bring back potential changes if needed as the rules were implemented, and the staff intends to do so," Young said in an email.

He said the department has committed $19 million to support cities in implementing the short-term work needed to adhere to the rules. The DLCD is pursuing another $12 million for the 2023-25 budget biennium.

Policy logjam

In Hillsboro, officials say the new rules are already causing headaches for staff.

"Right now, we've identified about two dozen projects where we'd have to go back and re-analyze them through the lens of these rules," said Joseph Auth, a transportation and planning engineer for Hillsboro. "It's taking money and staff resources away from looking at where gaps are in our communities, and instead going back over all our old work."

That's not necessary, the DLCD counters.

"Under the rules, cities and counties may continue to build transportation projects that are included in their current plans," Young told Pamplin Media Group.

Affected cities will have to ensure any projects comply that are included in future transportation system plans, Young added.

"This evaluation will likely be a part of the TSP update process rather than a separate action," he said.

Auth said that the rules will mandate much more analysis by city staff of traffic standards, development criteria and other rules that are governed by Hillsboro's transportation system plan.

Hillsboro just updated its transportation system plan in March. It was the first comprehensive rework of the plan since 2004, and it isn't scheduled for a substantive update until 2027.

Still, Auth said the new requirements will quadruple the amount of staff time and energy needed to take on a transportation system plan update in the future.

Hillsboro is Oregon's fifth-largest city. Officials in smaller cities, like neighboring Cornelius, argue that if Hillsboro says it will struggle to implement the rules, they don't stand a chance.

"Trying to comply with the same rule level, with a fraction of the staff and a fraction of the marginal income … how do we even comply with that?" said Cornelius Mayor Jef Dalin. "You really start to get a sense of just how impactful these rules are to the smaller communities, like Cornelius." PMG FILE PHOTO: - Cornelius Mayor Jef Dalin has been a vocal opponent of the new rules, which he says don't work for his community.

Young pointed out that the DLCD's rules don't treat all communities the same. Smaller cities don't have to comply with as many of the reduced parking requirements, and in certain other areas, they can apply for extensions or exemptions.

"The rules use an approach that varies by community. … The parking reforms, specifically, vary depending on the quality of transit in a community and by city population," Young said. "Those with fewer people and worse transit don't have to do as much."

Specifically, Young said, Cornelius is exempt from the rules that dictate how much parking space cities can require of new developments, as well as the requirements to build more parking garages or establish certain pricing for on-street parking, because it has fewer than 25,000 people.

Cities that have fewer than 10,000 people but are still within a metro area can apply for further exemptions.

Cities with populations over 100,000, conversely, must adopt stricter land use requirements and parking standards.

In Washington County, Hillsboro is the only city that's over that threshold, though Beaverton is right on the cusp and is expected to eclipse a 100,000 population soon.

Pump the brakes

In general, officials say they don't like being made the face of rules that they didn't create.

"When we do hear from the community about their suggestions or concerns, we don't really have any room except to say, 'This is what the rule says we have to do,'" Smith said. "We and other cities feel that that sets us up for failure."

They say that the point of threatening a lawsuit is to force the state to pump the brakes on implementing the new rules and to go back to the negotiating table.

But that's not in the cards, Young says. The climate crisis these rules aim to address is a problem now.

"Taking action on climate change is urgent," Young said. "Scores of Oregonians are dying in extreme weather events, and thousands are losing their homes or businesses. With more than two years on this rulemaking effort, specifically, further delay was not prudent."

He said that while the DLCD respects the coalition communities' concerns, there are also many across the state who are not threatening a judicial review of the rules and are instead working to implement them.

Coalition members say they're not alone, though. There are other cities and counties that have concerns with the rules but have not yet formally joined those threatening a lawsuit. Smith predicted that at least some of them ultimately will.

"We've started with a really strong coalition, and we expect it to keep growing," said Smith.

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