Urban-Growth Boundaries Are Just Plain Stupid

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.

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7 thoughts on “Urban-Growth Boundaries Are Just Plain Stupid

  1. D4P

    “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?”

    You seem to have identified what you believe to be the costs of compact development, rather than the benefits. Compact development can theoretically (1) help preserve “natural” lands outside the growth boundary (which has implications for current and future generations of humans and other organisms), (2) create a distinction between urban and rural (which some people like), (3) shorten commutes INSIDE the boundary (and make alternative transportation an option), (4) reduce public expenditures on roads and other costly infrastructure (which typically require taxes to pay for), (5) etc.

    BTW: I grew up in Eugene, and appreciate your Springfield KMart joke.

  2. Dan

    But there are better ways of doing that, like creating limited improvement districts so that new homebuyers will pay their own way.

    You forgot to provide evidence for this assertion. Thank you. Plz also provide any examples so we can discuss their merits in comments.

    But I do like the idea of a development having to pay full freight to run pipe and road, say, 5 miles past an urban service boundary – the cost of that alone will likely restrict the number of developments outside the boundary due to cost. And we won’t get affordable housing out of this idea, though, which is a pity. I know Randal is big on that when open space is out and about.

    I also like the implication of this plan, as the homeowner will also have to factor in the cost of the additional wear and tear of their auto on the surrounding roads and pay accordingly, which will reduce driving (who administers that…hmmm…look at all the new layers of government – surely not what we intended!). Paying for externalities is always good.

    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?

    As you know, because you are educat…no, because you have plann…no…well, as you should know, MPOs are created to distribute Federal transportation dollars. To distribute taxpayer dollars more efficiently, compact development is preferred over sprawling development. If you don’t like this arrangement, Randal, get access and lobby D.C. to change this arrangement and lobby for wasting taxpayer dollars. Otherwise, continue advocating for inefficiencies and wasting of taxpayer dollars.

    But I prefer WA’s idea where the localities get substantial input into their UGAs provided they can show cause for expanding (ability to provide services, projected population growth requires expansion, urban density [4 DU/ac] will be achieved, etc).

    DS

  3. The Antiplanner Post author

    DS

    If I build a development 5 miles from the urban fringe and put in water and sewer pipes to the development, I am going to make the pipes big enough to serve all the development that will eventually take place between my development and the fringe. Then I will rent/lease/sell the use of those pipes to the people who develop those lands. The result is that the cost per user is very low.

    That is essentially how leapfrog developments were financed for decades until planners came in and tried to rationalize things but ended up making housing unaffordable.

    As usual, you ask for examples but never give any yourself. For my examples, look at the finances of any leapfrog development that took place in the 1950s and 1960s. The housing built was very affordable and it paid its own way, unlike today where “progressive” cities build unaffordable housing with subsidies so that it won’t pay its way. For example, see just about any mixed-use development in Portland and most other places on the West Coast, Denver, Minneapolis, etc.

  4. Dan

    I am going to make the pipes big enough to serve all the development that will eventually take place between my development and the fringe

    Huh. So you’ll plan.

    I’m curious how the powerful planners stopped this scenario you outline:

    That is essentially how leapfrog developments were financed for decades until planners came in and tried to rationalize things but ended up making housing unaffordable.

    It wasn’t because it was inefficient or it didn’t pay for itself or anything else, was it? Curiously, you don’t say.

    But let’s see your cards about your implicit claim.

    Do you have empirical evidence that, say, in Oregon UGBs raised prices more (or faster) than they would have risen anyway, what with the regional economy, rising incomes, and demand for regional amenities that would have driven up prices regardless?

    Thank you in advance for providing evidence to back your implicit claim.

    Next,

    1. There is plenty of affordable housing in flyover country. I suggest you start advocating for that economic model to get some of their affordable housing: provide few well-paying jobs.

    Alternatively, you can drive jobs away. No jobs, no demand, viola! Affordable housing. Tell us how you do. Because the decision-makers in this country will laugh at you, as they know what drives housing prices in this country, and planning policies are not the sole driver in most jurisdictions in this country. You know that too, but that knowledge gets in the way of your advocacy.

    2. You know this too, but it gets in the way of your advocacy: there are many factors involved with UGBs that affect home prices, as Glaeser says but you don’t.

    If restrictive zoning wasn’t imposed by homebuyers wishing to maintain their home values by excluding undesirables (as Glaeser says but you ignore), homebuilders could have built denser developments long ago to meet that demand, and consuming less land within UGBs.

    Of course, you know but don’t tell your readers that, say, New Urbanist-type dense developments that cater to this demand for non-McSuburb neighborhoods are in big demand. Had developers had this option 20 years ago, there’d be greater supply and lower prices within UGBs, but of course you know but don’t tell your readers [you having studied econ and all] that prices would still be higher due to the demand for this type of housing and the nearby amenities that drive up prices.

    Lastly, I enjoy that you have to resort to stating I don’t provide examples. Thank you for that chuckle.

    DS

  5. txaicp

    “There is plenty of affordable housing in flyover country. I suggest you start advocating for that economic model to get some of their affordable housing: provide few well-paying jobs.”

    The ratio of income to housing costs is much higher in ‘flyover’ country, so income does not explain all the differences.

  6. The Antiplanner Post author

    txaicp,

    The reality is that many of the nation’s most affordable urban areas are growing much faster than the unaffordable ones. So there is no truth to the claim that places are affordable only because they have few well-paying jobs. In fact, well-paying jobs are migrating from places like Silicon Valley because those places are so unaffordable for employers and employees alike.

  7. Dan

    Just as there is (little or) no truth to the claim that planners have made housing unaffordable. The reason places have become unaffordable is due to their desirability.

    DS

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