The innovative land use law of Oregon is being tested by a housing shortage. Politicians Are Well-Posed to Modify It

Legislators in Oregon are considering repealing a 1970s statute that established the state as a national leader in utilizing land use policy to control suburban expansion, preserve agriculture, and prevent natural areas from becoming overdeveloped due to a severe shortage of affordable housing.

Megan Horst, an urban planning professor at Portland State University, claimed that the so-called urban growth limit, a holy cow of Oregon’s liberal politics, has been “extremely influential” in the state’s development and has contributed to its green reputation.

Regarding the fifty-year-old law, she added, “It’s impossible to exaggerate.” “Subdivisions and strip malls would probably swamp all that farmland, just like they do everywhere else in the nation.”

However, related housing and homelessness issues have compelled lawmakers—including Democrats who have traditionally supported the longstanding policy—to take exceptions into consideration.

This year’s brief legislative session saw the introduction of just one bill by Democratic Governor Tina Kotek, a comprehensive housing package designed to spur home construction by amending a 1973 law that essentially drew a circle around cities to protect farmland, forests, and nature from urban encroachment.

The plan must be approved by lawmakers in just two weeks before the session ends on March 10.

From 2013 to 2022, Kotek held the title of longest-serving speaker of the Oregon House and gained notoriety for her progressive policies. However, in an effort to meet her targets for house production, she has worked to loosen regulations for developers while serving as governor.

She is in the unique position of having to lobby members of her own party, many of whom voted against a similar plan last year, rather than Republicans, who generally support the package. In an effort to reach a compromise, Kotek claimed she spoke with legislators, real estate developers, and environmental organizations throughout the seven months in between legislative sessions.

“Last year, we had some proposals that weren’t acceptable to everyone, but we didn’t give up.” In her testimony in favor of the law, she identified herself as its “chief cheerleader” and “chief architect,” saying, “We sat down and worked on it.”

She continued, “I also understand that the process implies there may be amendments.” However, we are unable to witness this Legislature adjourning without passing this bill.

The anti-sprawl policy may appear dramatic in practice. Occasionally, blocks of dense apartment buildings stop abruptly to reveal rolling farmland or deep forests. There may be residential properties lining one side of a road and unbroken open space on the other.

A one-time exemption to the decades-old rule would be granted under the 42-page package, among many other things, allowing communities to purchase new land for the construction of houses. In areas of expansion, 30% of new units would need to be reasonably priced.

At the moment, cities have to project population growth over a 20-year period in order to propose a revision in the urban growth boundary for new residential, commercial, industrial, or public infrastructure. They can apply to expand if they can demonstrate that the area inside their boundaries won’t support future needs and can discover outside territory that satisfies a difficult set of requirements.

If a city with more than 2,500 population wants to expand by more than 50 acres (20 hectares), they must apply and get approved by a governmental body.

According to the Department of Land Conservation & Development, the organization in charge of permits, ninety-five percent of these modifications were accepted between 2016 and 2023. However, a lot of developers and cities complain that navigating the stringent criteria for study and review can be time-consuming.

The League of Oregon towns, which is neutral on the bill, is represented by lobbyist Ariel Nelson. “While land supply is not a barrier for all cities, it is critical for some, and the current… process is time-consuming, cost-prohibitive, and litigious,” Nelson stated in written testimony.

The plan before lawmakers would expedite the process by relaxing some requirements and, if reached, waiving the 20-year population forecast. However, the plan still has a lot of limitations, most of which are a result of requests by Democrats.

Cities must demonstrate that they are land-locked and that they lack affordable housing in order to qualify. They would have to determine how much land has been developed inside the present boundary and sketch the history of their growth boundary over the preceding 20 years. Additionally, they would need to demonstrate that a particular proportion of households—those that spend over half of their income on housing—are highly cost burdened.

Generally speaking, cities would not be allowed to add valuable forest or agricultural area.

Cities with populations under 25,000, for instance, could only add a maximum of 50 “net residential” acres (20 hectares), which is less than one-tenth of a square mile (0.3 square kilometers). In addition, cities could only add relatively modest areas of land. The quantity of land used to construct homes—streets and utilities excluded—is referred to as a net residential acre.

Urban growth boundary restrictions would no longer be applicable after 2033.

The bill’s safeguards, according to state senator Deb Patterson, a member of the Senate’s housing committee and the Environmental Caucus, gave her confidence to support it. She was among the Democratic lawmakers who voted against the idea last year.

“I do believe I will vote yes, even though this bill isn’t perfect in the slightest,” she stated. A lot of effort has been done to improve it.

Sen. Dick Anderson, a Republican who serves on the Senate housing committee and is one of her colleagues, said that while he supports the bill, the boundary expansion criteria are “almost to the point of not being of use.”

“You shouldn’t be picturing an expansion along the lines of Las Vegas or Phoenix, with houses everywhere and subdivision after subdivision,” he stated.

In Anderson’s opinion, the bill’s other provisions—namely, the one that permits cities to “swap” land that is currently inside their borders but is difficult to develop due to topography or steep terrain for an equivalent amount of land nearby that is better suited for residential use—would be more beneficial in his coastal district.

To effectively address the situation, other factors must also be addressed, according to housing specialists. These concerns include growing building supply costs, a labor scarcity, and an increase in corporate ownership of housing.

The land use legislation has been addressed by lawmakers in the past, notably to promote industrial expansion. Most recently, they passed a law last year that permits the governor to choose up to eight locations for development in order to create space for semiconductor factories.

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