BY KEVIN MANAHAN
Helvetia is a quaint community just a few miles west of Portland, whose Swiss-settler roots are reflected in its simplicity. Often nicknamed "Intel's playground," Helvetia draws cyclists and runners from the metro area while bringing in more than 100,000 visitors a year with agri-tourism businesses like wineries and pumpkin patches. And with a number of working farms, it's a regional and statewide resource — and residents would like to keep it that way.
The fate of the community was among the topics of discussion at a debate earlier this week sponsored by Oregon Public Broadcasting and the Forest Grove News-Times. The forum, taped at the Hillsboro Civic Center for OPB's "Think Out Loud" program, featured Portland Mayor Sam Adams and Washington County Chair Tom Brian discussing the pros and cons of expanding the Urban Growth Boundary in Washington County.
Metro and representatives from the three Portland-area counties are gearing up to decide whether to expand the UGB and what land to set aside as urban reserves for possible future development. A resident of Helvetia was at the forum expressing her concerns about the community being included in the urban reserves; now it seems only part of Helvetia is on the table for inclusion, but residents are now worried about Helvetia being split. But judging from the sound bites collected by OPB, Washington County residents generally have mixed views about the overall region growing up vs. growing out.
"There’s no wrong," Brian said. "We need to figure out how to do both, and at the same time do it well enough to minimize expansion onto the farmland." Brian said it's important to improve land use in the region and make the most of the land and infrastructure already available. But he also acknowledged that the Portland area's booming population could make expansion of the UGB a necessity. "At some time, as we face the million or so people coming our way in the next 25 years, and after we do everything we can, we will still need to expand our UGB," Brian said.
Adams held firm in his belief that there is plenty of room for development in place now without having to expand. "My vision for the region includes taking care of what’s already here before we unrealistically and fancifully expand the boundaries," Adams said. "We have not used what we have already annexed since 1990." The mayor was referring to 15,000 acres of land incorporated into the UGB 20 years ago that have yet to be developed. Adams' vision also includes creating "20-minute neighborhoods" on the main streets within the UGB that will allow residents to have everything they need within a mile of where they live, eliminating the need and costs of developing outward. “If you continue to expand the region, there is a finite amount of money you can spend on transportation," Adams said. "You’re stretching your dollars thinner and thinner."
At the end of the meeting, Helvetia’s fate was still undecided, and it was hard to tell the winning view in the debate. Brian said the 15,000 acres Adams mentioned included 9,000 acres all in Damascus, an area he said is difficult to reach and has gone unwanted by developers. And Metro's recent map of urban reserves does seem to point to a need for more available land. “If every acre of that urban reserve proposed area was in fact urbanized over the next 50 years, there would be an 11% expansion of the Portland metropolitan region, when we’re facing a 60% to 70% increase in population," Brian said. "We will still need land.”
But Adams wasn't convinced, saying the idea of infilling within the UGB and developing over urban brownfields was the best way to go. "Between what’s already vacant and buildable, and underutilized land that already has services and infrastructure surrounding it, we don’t have to expand," Adams said.
As I drove home from Hillsboro, my trusty iPhone directed me onto OR 219, a highway I hadn't driven on before that may as well have been the edge of civilization given the sudden transformation of my surroundings. And as irritated – and anxious – as I was about having to unexpectedly drive on a lonely, unlit highway through rain and mist, I knew that the quick access to the rural world was something I certainly couldn't find in the Southern California sprawl I used to live in. It would be a shame for the region to lose it.
Kevin Manahan is the online editor for Oregon Business.