Hood River Valley, less than an hour from Portland, is a naturalist’s oasis, thanks to Oregon’s land-use planning system. (Photo from Flickr.com/mdd22, under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0) 

In 1967, Charles and Ellen McClure purchased 70 scenic acres on the edge of Newberg, Ore., about 20 miles from Portland. Back then, Newberg was a sleepy farm town surrounded by hazelnut orchards. Today, it’s the gateway to the Willamette Valley’s renowned wine country.

In 2007, the McClures sought permission to develop their farmland as high-end housing. They faced one big hurdle. Their acreage sits just outside an imaginary line that divides urban Newberg from the rural countryside. Under Oregon’s land-use planning system, cities are encircled by urban growth boundaries. Inside the boundaries, zoning favors development and density. Outside, farms and forests are conserved for agriculture and timber production. Although the Newberg City Council gave the development a green light, the project ran afoul of state planning regulations. After years of legal wrangling, the McClures finally abandoned their development plans.

To proponents of Oregon’s land-use policies, this story shows that the system still works the way it was designed almost 40 years ago. Enforcing landmark Senate Bill 100, the nation’s first statewide land-use planning law that passed in 1973, is what keeps paradise from getting paved over, one farm, field, or hazelnut orchard at a time. Critics, meanwhile, deride what happened to the McClures as government intrusion on individual rights.

In a state that’s serious about preserving its natural resources and quality of life for future generations, friction between individual rights and the common good “is always underneath the surface,” acknowledges Ted Kulongoski, the former governor. A system for managing growth also has to be adept at managing conflict.

A Deliberate Place

Last fall, when the state’s land-use system was one of six finalists for the Innovations in American Government Award, Kulongoski addressed a panel at Harvard Kennedy School. “Oregon,” he said, “is the closest thing America has to a deliberate place.” The state’s planning system establishes broad goals but requires every city and county to adopt its own comprehensive plan with input from local community members. An appeals process gives landowners a forum for challenging zoning designations. The system combines “high-level, shared goals and bottom-up, citizen-driven application of those goals,” the former governor said.

One of the panelists, questioning whether such a top-down, bottom-up system could be replicated anywhere else, remarked, “Isn’t Oregon just weird?”

That may be. After all, this is the same place that spawned Portlandia, the popular TV series that skewers the progressive culture of the state’s largest city. But back in 1973, when Republican Governor Tom McCall raised a rallying cry against sprawl, he framed the need for land-use planning as a moral imperative. From the statehouse, McCall derided developers as “grasping wastrels of the land.” Carl Abbott, professor of urban studies at Portland State University, observes, “Policy wonks usually shy away from that kind of language.” SB 100 passed through a bipartisan effort that would be hard to duplicate in today’s political climate, Abbott adds. Unlikely allies included a dairy farmer turned state senator, cannery workers represented by the Teamsters Union, and a contingent of environmentalists.

Christopher Leinberger, a nationally recognized land-use strategist and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, recalls the launch of Oregon’s land-use system as “a clap of thunder from the Northwest. When they put on the urban growth boundary and began to empower local communities in the planning process, it was downright European.”

In the intervening years, the state has seen a range of benefits resulting from its systematic approach to land use. From 1982 to 2007, while the nation lost some 23 million acres of agricultural land, Oregon kept virtually all its farmland intact, according to Richard Whitman, natural resources policy advisor to Gov. John Kitzhaber. Whitman says vehicle miles traveled have dropped in Oregon, where regional public transportation needs are considered as part of land-use planning. Meanwhile, the state leads the nation as a producer of softwood timber and has a voracious appetite for locally sourced food products.

Harder to quantify is the preservation of scenic beauty and quality of life. Jason Miner, executive director of a land-use watchdog group called 1000 Friends of Oregon, points to the Hood River Valley as one of many planning success stories. Less than an hour by freeway from Portland International Airport, it remains a landscape of family-owned pear and apple orchards with breathtaking views of Cascade peaks.

Ideas to Borrow

Although Oregon’s land-use system is often held out as a national model for smart growth, no other state has adopted anything quite so comprehensive. “Oregon is the only state program that gives land standing,” Miner says. “Land is valued as more than a commodity.”

Portland attorney and land-use expert Ed Sullivan says Washington state comes closest to Oregon’s system, “but every state is unique.” He cites several states, including Vermont, Hawaii, New York, Maine, and California, that have developed their own approaches to land-use planning. Two features unique to Oregon are a statewide land-use agency—the Land Conservation and Development Commission—and a Land Use Board of Appeals. LUBA has “exclusive jurisdiction to review land-use decisions of local governments in a fairly fast way, through an administrative agency with direct appeal to the state court of appeals. That has worked fairly well,” Sullivan says.

Although wholesale replication hasn’t happened, pieces of the Oregon system can be found elsewhere. The urban growth boundary, a concept Oregon pioneered to literally “hold the line” against sprawl, is now used in states as diverse as Tennessee, Maine, and New Jersey. Under the Oregon system, a city’s urban growth boundary is based on population trends to provide a 20-year supply of land for urban development.

The smart growth approach encourages density, public transportation, and vitality in the urban core. Leinberger credits Portland, which also has been a leader in introducing light rail and building bike lanes, with “elevating the conversation” about the design of walkable American cities.

Nationally, it’s a different story. “We’ve been massively subsidizing sprawl,” says Leinberger. “We have overbuilt low-density housing that’s dependent on cars and trucks. That’s what caused the Great Recession.” Not everyone agrees. Wendell Cox of the National Center for Policy Analysis blamed the housing boom (and eventual bust) on smart growth restrictions in a paper published last year. Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute has called sustainable planning “an outrageous intrusion of government into people’s lives.”

Leinberger, meanwhile, only has to look at current real estate hot spots like Arlington, Va., to see pent-up demand for urban and near-urban areas that look like the picture Portland started painting decades ago.

Oregon’s urban development policies may draw more attention, but the state’s approach to rural lands is also unique. When the state embarked on its grand plan, rural regions were graded on the soil quality of farmland and forests. The best growing regions have been conserved to ensure a supply of resources. “We use data to plan for the future,” Miner says, offering this as another idea worth borrowing.

“The system works to keep farms farms and forests forests,” says Jennifer Krauss Phillippi, whose family has been in the forestry business in Southern Oregon for four generations. Combined holdings of Perpetua Forests Company, of which she is president, and various family trusts total 26,000 acres of sustainably managed forests. “Our state laws are strict. We have to manage for the highest and best use,” Phillippi says. She’s constantly aware of the balance between protecting resources and “not going so overboard with regulations that you can’t afford to do business. It’s an important tension.”

Putting a Face on Planning

Oregon’s land-use system continues to evolve in response to that tension. Every legislative session since 1973 has found cause to amend the original planning bill. In 2004, voters nearly gutted the system when they approved a measure requiring landowners to be compensated if their property value is reduced by land-use regulations. Poster child for the property rights campaign was a 90-year-old widow who couldn’t develop her 40 acres as retirement income because it was zoned as forestland. Dave Hunnicutt of Oregonians in Action, which lobbied for the measure, said in an interview shortly after it passed, “I have been around the country, in states that are just as beautiful as Oregon, and they have friendly people, and none of those states have had to rely on taking people’s property, the way they do here in Oregon, to obtain their objectives.”

Measure 37 was a wake-up call for environmentalists and planning advocates, including then-Gov. Kulongoski. They rallied with another measure that voters approved in 2007, largely reversing their earlier position and putting land-use planning back on track. “Voters had buyer’s remorse [after passing Measure 37],” adds Sullivan, “when they realized that ‘just compensation’ might mean shopping centers outside the urban growth boundary.”

Watchdog groups like 1000 Friends of Oregon have learned that they can’t be complacent, despite the state’s pioneering efforts to plan thoughtfully for the future. Miner points out that more than half the state’s current residents were born elsewhere. “We need to educate them about the quality of life that they moved here for. It didn’t happen by accident,” he says. Land-use planning may sound like “a dead term,” he adds, “but it affects decisions you make every day. How do you get to work? Can you buy local food? Do you have sidewalks so you can walk safely in your neighborhood? We need to put a better face on it.”

When challenges arise, such as proposals to carve up just a little bit of wine country or let a widow subdivide her property, Sullivan encourages holding the line. “You’ve got to steel yourself to follow your policies,” he says, “if those policies are going to remain meaningful.”

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