Portland Case Study:
Oregon's Land-Use Planning

In February, 2000, a state land-use official shocked Portland-area religious leaders by telling the Sunnyside United Methodist Church in southeast Portland that it could allow no more than 70 people at one time into its 400-seat sanctuary for Sunday services.[1] A local uproar soon led this decision to be rescinded, but numerous other restrictions on the church's activities were left in place.

This wasn't the only time Oregon land-use rules had infringed on the separation between church and state. When the First Presbyterian Church in the southern Oregon town of Jacksonville had outgrown its building, it applied for a routine permit to build a larger church. The city said it would permit the new church only if no more than 40 cars used the church parking lot on weekdays; there were no services on Sunday evenings; the church would be closed on Saturdays; and the church would hold no more than five weddings and/or funerals per year.[2] When the church refused to accept these conditions, the city simply denied the permit, saying that it would lead to too much congestion. The church is appealing the decision.[3]

This sort of micromanagement by government officials has become common in Oregon, and it is led by the Land Conservation and Development Commission (LCDC), which oversee's Oregon's land-use laws. LCDC is a seven-member body appointed by the governor which writes standards for and reviews county and city planning. The 1973 land-use law required every city and county in the state was required to submit its plans for commission approval, and the law provided an appeal process for anyone who objected to any planning or zoning decision anywhere in the state.

The law was strongly supported by Oregon's popular governor at the time, Tom McCall. Though McCall is famous for saying "Please visit Oregon, but don't move here," during his term of office Oregon began to grow rapidly. To support that growth, McCall encouraged "clean industry," such as silicon wafer manufacturers, to move to Oregon, while telling polluters to stay away. There is a persistent myth that under McCall's leadership Oregon posted signs at the borders asking people not to move to the state and that a later governor removed those signs.[4] In fact, all the sign said was, "Welcome to Oregon -- We Hope You Enjoy Your Visit."[5]

Initially, few people understood what the land-use planning law would really do. Would it be a "growth-control" law, one that attempted to stifle immigration and population growth (as many accused McCall of trying to do)? Or would it be a "growth-management" law, which accepted growth but merely tried to channel it into acceptable locations? The answer came when the Land Conservation and Development Commission approved its first goals.

The goals required that all cities identify an urban-growth boundary that contained enough, but no more, vacant land to accommodate projected "long-range urban population growth."[6] A housing goal required all cities to provide for "adequate numbers of needed housing units at price ranges and rent levels which are commensurate with the financial capabilities of Oregon households."[7] No city or town could zone itself exclusively for large-lot, single-family housing affordable only to upper-income residents. Outside of the urban-growth boundaries, most farms, forests, and other open spaces were to be protected from development on parcels smaller than 80 to 160 acres. Smaller lots could be used only if the county could show that such sizes would "maintain the existing commercial agricultural enterprise within the area."[8]

Under the Oregon plan, then, growth would be controlled outside the urban-growth boundaries through the combination of tax incentives and zoning at very large--80 to 160 or more acres--minimum lot sizes. But growth would be managed inside the urban-growth boundaries using zoning and other systems to insure that there would always be sufficient affordable housing for everyone.

As the law was implemented for nearly two decades, nearly all of the burden fell upon landowners outside of the urban-growth boundaries who were unable to use their land as they liked. There were some controversies inside the growth boundaries when cities or counties proposed to rezone to higher densities. But generally, the growth boundaries were drawn large enough to allow development at low densities for many years. When rural opponents of the planning rules attempted to overturn them at the ballot box, the much larger number of urban residents who benefitted from enforced rural open space without paying any costs voted in favor of retaining the law.

Inside the urban areas, the law was supported by a coalition of environmentalists and developers. Since state rules prohibited any community from limiting growth inside its growth boundary, realtors, home builders, and other developers had no objections to the law.

Until 1990, no one talked about compact development, neighborhood densification, or "growing up, not out." With a few exceptions such as the Portland suburb of Happy Valley, most Oregon communities already had a mix of high- and low-density housing and so had no problem meeting the state housing goal. The initial urban-growth boundaries were drawn to include huge areas of vacant land--enough, it was hoped, for twenty years' worth of growth. When the land-use goals were first being written, I asked Steve Schell, one of the original members of the Land Conservation and Development Commission, what would happen when the vacant land inside the boundaries was filled up. "Then we breach the boundary," he said.

In other words, the original intention of the growth boundaries was not to contain cities within those boundaries for all time but simply "To provide for an orderly and efficient transition from rural to urban land use"[9]--in other words, to prevent leapfrog development. Such leapfrog development was assumed to be inefficient for both urban residents and farmers. Urban residents would have to pay more taxes to deliver urban services to suburbs that had leapfrogged the urban area. Farmers whose land was isolated by leapfrog development would have to pay more to farm their land. Though never proven these assumptions were widely accepted.

Despite this original intention, once the growth boundaries were put into place they immediately created a constituency. Anyone who lived on or near a boundary had an interest in keeping the boundary intact so that they could maintain their views of rural open space outside the boundary. They were joined by people who bought homes and "hobby farms" outside the boundary who wanted their neighborhoods to remain rural. Intended to be a flexible planning tool, the boundaries soon became, in many people's minds, sacred lines that should never be changed.

Oregon's land-use laws may have discouraged leapfrog development, but they did not discourage low-density sprawl. Between 1980 and 1990, the population density of the Portland urbanized area increased by just 2 percent, while the Eugene urbanized area density actually fell by 2 percent. Meanwhile the densities of many other cities of similar size, but without similar land-use laws, increased by far more (table one). Las Vegas, which the Sierra Club says is one of the nation's most sprawl-threatened cities, increased its density by 29 percent, while Phoenix, which received a "dishonorable mention" from the Sierra Club, increased its density by 23 percent. Salt Lake, another city accused of being sprawling, increased its density by 40 percent, and even Los Angeles, the Sierra Club's "granddaddy of sprawl," increased its density by 12 percent.

Table One: Change in Selected Urban Area Population Densities

                        1990           1990         Density
Urban                Population      Density        % Change 
Area                 (thousands)  (people/sq mi)   from 1980
Denver                  1,518          3,309            7
Eugene                    189          2,888           -2
Las Vegas                 697          3,018           29
Los Angeles            11,403          5,801           12
Minneapolis-St. Paul    2,080          1,956            7
Phoenix                 2,006          2,707           23
Portland                1,005          3,133            2
Vancouver                 167          2,489           11
Sacramento              1,097          3,285           15
Salem                     157          2,760            6
Salt Lake City            789          3,107           40
Seattle                 1,744          2,967            3

Source: Census Bureau

Despite its sprawl, Oregon was not exactly running short of farms, forests, or open space. In 1986, when all cities and counties had completed LCDC-approved land-use plans, they had zoned 49 percent of the state for agricultural uses, 44 percent for forest uses, and 5 percent for other rural uses such as parks and rural residential. Only 1.24 percent of the state was inside of an urban-growth boundary, and much of that remained undeveloped. Rural residential was the only rural zone allowing developments on lots as small as five acres, and it occupied just 1.03 percent of the state.[10]

Over the next decade, minor adjustments brought a few thousand more acres inside urban boundaries, but still left 98.74 percent of the state in rural zones.[11] Much of the land within the urban-growth boundaries also remains undeveloped. According to the 1990 census, all developed "places," including unincorporated areas with as few as 8 residents, occupied just 1.02 percent of the state.[12]

Despite these numbers, the Land Conservation and Development Commission imposed increasingly draconian rules to prevent rural developments it did not think appropriate. Some of the rules are inscrutable. For example, the commission allows "regulation" golf courses--courses with "a par of 64 to 73 strokes" for eighteen holes--on agricultural land. But it does not allow "par 3" golf courses, that is, courses with a par of just 54 for eighteen holes.[13]

To protect the countryside, the commission also regulates the things farmers can sell in roadside stands: At least 75 percent of sales must be "farm crops and livestock grown on farms in the local agricultural area."[14] One farm family, whose land is located just 1,000 feet outside of Salem's urban-growth boundary, sold fresh blueberries at a roadside stand. This was so successful that they expanded to selling blueberry muffins and pies. Eventually the fruit stand evolved into the popular Blueberry Cafe, selling such things as blueberry pancakes, Norwegian potato lefse, and coffee. The cafe was a boon for local farmers, consuming three tons of blueberries as well as many other farm products each year. But in January, 2000, after three years of operation, planning officials ordered that it be shut down because the share of locally-grown products had fallen below 75 percent.[15] The owners reluctantly converted it back to a fruit stand.[16]

More important, the commission has tried to discourage housing in rural areas. The commission's original rules required counties to zone most farm and forest lands to at least 40-acre, and preferably 160-acre, minimum lot sizes. This was based on an unproved assumption that smaller farms are not economically viable. The fact that the average farm size in many European countries is less than 5 acres, and most Asian farms are smaller than that, was ignored. For many, the real goal is not to maintain viable farms but to preserve land outside of urban-growth boundaries as open space.

Oregon's land-use commission soon decided that 40- and even 160-acre minimum lot sizes were not enough: In Oregon's growing economy, increasing numbers of people were wealthy enough to buy this much farm land and build "starter castles"--the anti-sprawl movement's derisive term for large exurbanite homes. So the commission passed a new rule: Landowners must actually farm their land for three years before they are allowed to build on it. Some landowners met this requirement by planting blueberries, a low-cost crop that required little tending and whose first harvest would not even be ready until after the three years were up.

The commission responded by passing an even more stringent rule: Owners of "high-value" farmland (class I and II farmlands as defined by the U.S.D.A.) must earn at least $80,000 per year from farming for two years (or three of the last five years) before they can build a home on their land.[17] Owners of low-value farm land (located mostly in eastern Oregon) need earn only $40,000 per year. Only one out of six Oregon farmers actually earns $80,000 per year farming, so if they did not already have houses on their land this rule would prevent most Oregon farmers from living on their own land. This rule will also have an unintended consequence: The lands that are most valuable for farming will be the ones that are developed first because they will most easily produce the minimum revenues.

"This farm income test is an essential safeguard for the state's economy," says the director of the Department of Land Conservation and Development. "Before we started using this test, lawyers, doctors, and others not really farming were building houses in farm zones," which threatened "years of progressive farmland protection policy."[18] The department brags that, in the first three years after adopting this rule, only 322 new homes were approved on farm lands.[19] During that same time period, the state's population grew by 140,000 people, nearly all of whom were forced by LCDC rules to crowd into ciites.

Having greatly restricted development of nearly 98 percent of the state, the commission has most recently placed further restrictions on the use of the 1.03 percent classified rural residential. While most rural residential zones allows lots as small as five acres, a new rule passed by the commission heavily restricts further subdivisions of any lands in this zone and encourages counties to zone such land in 10-acre minimum lot sizes. To prevent urbanization of rural residential land that is close to urban-growth boundaries, land on urban fringes must be zoned in lots as large as 20 acres.[20] This will help contain Oregon's growing urban population inside the growth boundaries.


1. Wade Nkrumah, "Portland church at center of gathering storm," The Oregonian, February 11, 2000.

2. Anonymous, "Jacksonville Church," The Oregonian, March 2, 2000, p. D9.

3. Anonymous, "Vote puts kibosh on Jacksonville church expansion," The Oregonian, March 9, 2000, .

4. Edwin Mills, "No Growth/Slow Growth Presentation January 19, 1994," in ECO Northwest, Evaluation of No-Growth and Slow-Growth Policies for the Portland Region (Portland, OR: Metro, 1994), p. D-2.

5. Brent Walth, Fire at Eden's Gate: Tom McCall & the Oregon Story (Portland, OR: Oregon Historical Society, 1994), p. 3.

6. LCDC Goal 14

7. LCDC Goal 10.

8. LCDC Goal 3.

9. LCDC Goal 14.

10. LCDC, "Zoning Acres by County - 1986."

11. LCDC, "County Acres Replanned and/or Rezoned from One Rural Zone to Another Rural Zone by Type of Zone and Year"

12. Census Bureau.

13. Oregon Administrative Rule 660-033-0130(20).

14. OAR 660-033-0130(23).

15. Associated Press, "Blueberry Cafe finds itself in a jam," January 18, 2000.

16. Cheryl Martinis, "Blueberry Cafe will close March 1," The Oregonian, February 20, 2000.

17. OAR 660-033-0130(24)(b)(B).

18. LCDC, Using Income Criteria to Protect Commercial Farmland in the State of Oregon (Salem, OR: LCDC, 1998), p. 2.

19. Ibid.

20. Oregon Administrative Rule Chapter 660, Division 4, amended June 9, 2000.

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