Oregon's land-use laws have limited sprawling housing developments while preserving farmland.
Whether one supports or is skeptical of Oregon’s land-use system, it remains unique. “It’s truly radical in the national picture,” says David Oates, author of the 2006 book City Limits: Walking Portland’s Boundary. The best evidence, of course, is how Portland differs substantially from virtually any other large American city west of the Mississippi. It’s what enticed Oates to move here two decades ago from Los Angeles. “The contrast” between dense, pedestrian-friendly Portland and the sprawling car culture of Southern California, he says, “is in front of your eyes every single day.”
Oates cites a wave of urban-infill projects that have turned vacant lots and destitute inner-city neighborhoods into a metropolis the New York Times and countless other media — not to mention thousands of educated creative-class workers for a range of industries — can’t get enough of.
Rural land benefits just as much, supporters argue. “When you look at the health and vitality of cities in Oregon and its farmland, from Ashland to Portland, Senate Bill 100 had a lot to do with that,” says Ryan Deckert, president of the Oregon Business Association. “A well-planned city you can enjoy and appreciate makes a huge difference to a corporation. We see both sides of it, be it the health of a vineyard or a burgeoning software industry.”
Deckert cites a recent private dinner in Portland with the American head of a major foreign automaker who was scouting the state for future development. “They like Oregon because we seem to have thought ahead.”
The thinking ahead got its start in the 1960s, when Gov. McCall led a growing bipartisan and urban-rural consensus against what he called “sagebrush subdivisions” and “coastal condo-mania.” Senate Bill 100 was passed on May 29, 1973, after a long public-outreach process, culminating in the creation of the state Land Conservation and Development Commission to oversee creation of local urban-growth boundaries. And once ballot measures calling for repeal of Senate Bill 100 were defeated in 1976 and 1978, every Oregon municipality was required to have comprehensive plans and growth boundaries in place by 1986.
The desire for middle ground struck again in 2000, when disgruntled private-property owners, many of whom had seen their land devalued and its development restricted, struck back again. Voters approved Ballot Measure 7, calling for landowners to be compensated when government regulation caused devaluation. The Oregon Supreme Court overturned the measure on a constitutional technicality, but in 2004, voters approved Ballot Measure 37, which not only called for property owners to receive compensation when a land-use regulation was enacted after their purchase, but also allowed local governments to instead roll back zoning regulations.
Then came a compromise that seems to have held. As local governments became overwhelmed with Measure 37 claims, the legislature referred Measure 49 to voters with successful passage in 2007. Measure 49 terminated Measure 37 claims but provided an allowance of up to three additional housing units per claim.
“I think 49 has settled [those problems],” says David Hunnicutt, president of Oregonians In Action, the property-rights group that spearheaded Measure 37. The larger problem, he says, is a one-size-fits-all approach that favors urban needs over rural ones. “The idea of Senate Bill 100 was we were going to create a state system and a state agency to oversee local planning, but the bulk of the planning would be done at the local level, so counties would have flexibility,” he says. “But that really hasn’t come to pass. In a state as big and diverse as Oregon, planning and zoning needs really should be driven at the local level. You have to understand, despite 40 years of centralized planning, we’re still the only state that’s doing it this way.”
Hunnicutt cites Oregon’s northern neighbor, Washington, where local jurisdictions have a greater say in their own planning, and the smallest rural towns can opt out altogether. “Out of the 39 counties, 10 aren’t subject to Washington’s statewide land-use laws, basically because there isn’t any growth to manage,” Hunnicutt explains. “We could take a page from that and allow some of our struggling, rural, nongrowing counties the opportunity to exercise some creativity, and try to kick-start their economy without the weight of 19 state land-use planning goals weighing over their heads.”