Metro farmland protection debates looming large

By Mark Engler, Capital Press

PORTLAND - 4/16/02 - Whether regional government planners can supply adequate solutions to the demands of urban population growth in the next 10 years remains to be seen, though there won’t likely be any shortage of public debate on the issues in the next eight months.

In December the Metro Council will determine whether to expand the urban growth boundary. Every five years Metro, the regional planning body that presides over the greater Portland metropolitan area, is required to examine the UGB and either increase development capacity within it or enlarge the boundary area.

At the heart of matters is the balancing act between farmland protection and deciding which lands should be slated for residential and industrial development.

“The key question is this: Is agriculture important to the state of Oregon?” said Metro Councilor Rod Park of Gresham. “If agriculture is important to the state of Oregon, then you need to protect the key element, which is the land base.” Park is a nurseryman.

Although state law stipulates Metro is supposed to make every effort to select only the lowest quality farmland for urban development, circumstances do arise under which more productive farmland is considered. The process for making those determinations, called a “subregional needs analysis,” is controversial and fraught with legal pitfalls. So much so that Metro recently requested assistance from the Oregon Land Conservation and Development Commission to ensure that Metro follows the letter of the law.

In Washington County in particular there is mounting political pressure to allow urban-style building on otherwise good farmland. Cornelius Mayor Ralph Brown said his town of about 10,000, located between Hillsboro and Forest Grove, is in dire need of commercial business development.

“We’ve got to work to see what we can do to bring in more jobs,” said Brown. “Eighty-five percent of the people who live here leave to go to work every day.”

Brown’s a proponent of protecting rural lands, but at the same time sees situations where farmers need help.

“A lot of family farms have kids that aren’t interested in being farmers themselves, and they have to be able to do something with their land,” he said. “We want to make it so they can.”

Still, if Metro says no to expanding the UGB to include those lands, or if the subregional needs analysis process isn’t completed before Metro votes in December, then those land transactions will not likely occur.

Such possibilities have critics of Metro questioning the wisdom and necessity of both the UGB and Metro itself.

“I’ve seen some of the best farmland in the state built on within the UGB while we protect marginal farmland outside it,” said Craig Flynn. He’s challenging Rod Park for a Metro Council seat in the May election.

Flynn, who describes himself as a “big believer in freedom of choice, personal property rights and markets,” said he generally believes that if individuals or groups of individuals “want to do something that doesn’t hurt anybody else, then they should be able to do it.”

He added that he believes overriding efforts to protect farmland are in some ways misguided. “Everybody talks about how worried they are about urban sprawl, yet 97 percent of the land in Oregon is zoned exclusively for farm or timber. What are we trying to save?” said Flynn, a self-employed rental property manager in east Portland. “It seems to me we’re saving a lot of farmland, but are we saving the farmer?”

Park, a past president of the Oregon Association of Nurserymen, maintains that without Metro, as well as statewide efforts to protect agriculture, the farm economy would suffer dramatically.

In the absence of UGBs, “in the rural areas you would see a lot more low-level development, more like a California pattern,” said Park.

“You probably wouldn’t have a strong nursery industry around Portland, which would put a big scratch in a $642 million a year industry. I don’t know if it even would have developed. The problem is that you wouldn’t have had the critical mass that you have now, with concentrations of growers.”

That facilitates support of events like the Far West Nursery Show, which helps Oregon maintain its position as a leader of the industry nationally, he said.


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