Originally conceived as a way of preventing “leapfrog development,” i.e, development of land some distance away from urban fringes, urban-growth boundaries are now used to prevent any development at the urban fringe at all. This pleases planners, who think we should all live in “compact developments,” and who ally themselves with property owners along the boundaries who want to preserve their scenic views.
The last effort to expand Portland’s boundary required lengthy political battles as landowners who wanted to develop their land fought those who wanted to benefit from someone else’s land remaining undeveloped. In about 1999, Portland’s Metro finally expanded boundary. But very little development has taken place because planners are too busy “planning” the expanded areas to allow anyone to do anything in them. The time between expansion and any actual development seems to be at least a decade.
Meanwhile, Metro is under the gun to meet housing goals and is asking the legislature for two more years before it considers any more expansions. Planners say they are too busy planning the previous expansions to think about doing any more.
Oregon planning rules require planners to regularly evaluate whether there is sufficient land available for population growth. Portland’s next evaluation is supposed to begin this year, but Metro wants the legislature to postpone it to 2009.
At the other end of the Willamette Valley, Eugene (population 143,000) and Springfield (population 55,000) huddle next to one another in the center part of Lane County, Oregon. So, under Oregon law, they share an urban-growth boundary.
They don’t share much else. As a university town, Eugene is known as one of the most liberal cities in Oregon. Springfield, meanwhile, has historically relied on the timber industry for most of its economy. When I lived in Eugene, we used to make all kinds of snooty jokes at Springfield’s expense (“what are the first words a Springfield baby learns?” “Attention K-Mart shoppers”). But the truth was that, when I needed an affordable place to live, I found it in Springfield.
Recently, an “upscale” housing development called MountainGate was built in Springfield. But residents are so ashamed of living in Springfield that they tell people, “We live in MountainGate” instead.
Eugene favors density, AKA “grow up, not out.” Springfield wants to expand its part of the boundary so it can approve more single-family homes. Eugene has enough weight to veto any expansions of the mutual boundary. And the truth is that Eugene is growing faster than Springfield, so perhaps people like density — or are too snobbish to consider living in Springfield.
In any case, Springfield has had enough. It is supporting a bill in the state legislature that would allow each city to define its own urban-growth boundary. The bill has passed the house, and now goes before the senate.
Eugene, of course, was strongly opposed to the bill. Eugene’s mayor argues, ironically enough, that for the legislature to step in now “circumvents local decision-making.” But she doesn’t want local decisionmaking — she wants the opportunity to veto someone else’s local decision.
This is the crux of the problem: when people start to think they have a right to say what happens on everyone else’s land. In communities where people don’t think that, developers can build homes to meet demand and housing remains affordable. When there are no urban-growth boundaries, you don’t have huge differences in the price of land (less than $1,000 an acre on one side of a line, more than $300,000 on the other side). So people don’t fight over this artificially created wealth.
What benefits do the boundaries provide? The original goal of preventing leapfrog development was supposed to reduce the cost of urban services. But there are better ways of doing that, like creating limited improvement districts so that new homebuyers will pay their own way. Now the goal is to force compact development, but it is hard to see just what benefits that provides: more congestion? lower homeownership rates? longer commutes by people escaping the costs of the boundary?
Letting Springfield choose its own boundary and telling Portland’s Metro it must provide land to meet demand will only partly remedy the problems caused by the boundaries. The real solution would be to get rid of the boundaries altogether.