Vanishing Automobile update #26
Portland Votes on Density
First distributed 24 May 2002
The Thoreau Institute
On May 21, 2002, nearly two out of three Portland-area voters voted to
"prohibit increased density in existing neighborhoods." Opponents and
supporters of smart growth, the planning fad that calls for increasing urban
densities, both claimed victory, leaving many people confused about who really
- Oregon has lived with increasingly strict land-use laws since 1969.
- In 1969, the legislature required every city and county in the state to
zone all land in their jurisdictions.
- In 1973, the legislature created a seven-member appointed commission that
would write rules with which all city and county plans and zoning would have
- In the mid-1970s, the rules written by the commission required all cities
to identify urban-growth boundaries. Outside of the boundaries, most land
would have 40-acre minimum lot sizes.
- Planning and zoning was complete by the mid-1980s, when 1.25 percent of
the state was inside of urban-growth boundaries, about 4 percent was zoned
"rural residential" (5- to 20-acre minimum lot sizes), and the
rest was zoned "rural" (40-acre minimum lot sizes).
- In the late 1980s, the 40-acre minimum lot size was increased to 160
- In 1993, a new rule was written requiring owners of farm land to actually
earn (depending on land productivity) $40,000 to $80,000 a year farming
before they could build a house on their own land, no matter how many acres
Up to this point, all of the impacts of planning had fallen on rural
landowners. Since rural residents make up only 30 percent of the state, their
protests were ignored by the urbanites who were happy to have the state
"protect open space" at the expense of the ruralites.
Portland-area residents were so happy with planning, in fact, that they
voted in 1992 to create Metro, a regional government with dictatorial planning
authority over twenty-four cities and three counties. Some people said that the
ballot title, "Limits regional government," didn't accurately
describe a measure that created the nation's most powerful regional government.
But while a few voters were deceived, it is likely that the measure would have
passed even with an accurate ballot title.
Rapid population growth in the late 1980s and early 1990s led to the
development of most of the available vacant lands inside the growth boundaries
of Portland, Eugene, and other of Oregon's major urban areas. Planners had
originally promised to expand the boundaries as the state's population grew. To
maintain affordable housing, Oregon law requires that each city compare the
amount of vacant land within its boundary with the projected growth rate to
insure that the boundary has twenty years supply of developable land.
Yet, as Peter Drucker reminds us, anytime the government does anything, it
almost at once becomes "moral." Instead of being a flexible planning
tool, the growth boundary became for many a sacred line. By 1993, a zero-option
movement was growing that demanded no expansion of the boundaries, especially
the boundary around the rapidly growing Portland area. As a result, the state
legislature agreed that Metro could meet the twenty-year developable land
supply requirement by rezoning existing neighborhoods to higher densities.
Metro anticipated an 80-percent increase in the Portland area's population
by 2040. Its plans called for a mere 6 percent expansion of the urban-growth
boundary-though the zero-option people have prevented even that.
To accommodate the rest of the newcomers, in 1995 Metro gave population
targets to each of the cities and counties in its jurisdiction. To meet their
targets, the municipalities had to rezone many neighborhoods of single-family
homes for apartments and other high-density developments.
Metro insisted that local governments use minimum-density zoning, meaning
that all new development in that zone be at least 80 percent of the maximum
density of the zone. If you own a quarter-acre lot in an area zoned for
36-unit-per-acre apartments, you can't build a single-family house: you must
build at least seven dwelling units. If your house burns down, you can't
replace it with another home; you must build apartments or row houses.
This rezoning provoked enormous controversy in the neighborhoods in which it
took place. Despite dozens of meetings crammed with hundreds of angry
residents, the cities managed to rezone almost every neighborhood on Metro's
target list. City officials told residents that they had no choice: Metro was
making them do it.
Today, most Portland-area neighborhoods of single-family homes can point to
nearby four- and five-story apartment buildings that have sprung up in response
to Metro's demands for higher densities. These developments contribute to
congested streets, crowded schools, and overstressed water, sewer, and other
Because the market for apartments was already saturated in 1995, developers
built these high-density complexes only after getting millions of dollars in
subsidies from Metro and local governments. Metro often buys land and resells
it to developers at half price on the condition that they put in high-density
housing. The cities then waive property taxes and development charges. Metro
also funnels direct grants to many developers using federal funds that,
ironically, are supposed to be used to reduce congestion.
In 1989, a group named Oregonians in Action formed to help defend rural
landowners from Oregon's strict land-use laws. Rural groups had previously
challenged the laws at the ballot box in 1976, 1978, and 1982. But urbanites
always outvoted the rural minority.
The politics changed in the 1990s as densification began imposing
significant costs on urban residents. So an Oregonians in Action measure on the
November 2000 ballot easily won statewide support. Measure 7, as it is known,
would require local governments to compensate landowners if any land-use
regulations have reduced the property of their land since they purchased the
land, the measure easily passed. The courts have since held up measure 7, but
its success at the ballot box has left planning proponents worried.
In 2001, Oregonians in Action gathered enough signatures to put a measure on
the ballot that would take away Metro's authority to require cities to increase
neighborhood densities. Polls showed that most Portland-area voters supported
the urban-growth boundaries but opposed densification. This measure should have
led to a clear debate over the trade offs between density and expansion.
Metro responded by putting its own measure on the ballot. Metro's measure
prohibited density increases in selected neighborhoods only, and then only
until 2015. But the ballot titles for the two measures were worded almost
identically. If both measures passed, the one with the most votes would
Metro's measure completely changed the nature of the debate. Instead of a
debate over density vs. expansion, it was a debate based on demonizing
Oregonians in Action. Metro's supporters never argued they wanted higher
densities. Instead, they claimed that greedy land speculators supported
Oregonians in Action's measure. Metro's measure, they claimed, would protect
neighborhoods and restore local control without helping evil developers.
Oregonians in Action could have fight back by trying to demonize Metro. It
chose instead to campaign for its own measure without impugning the integrity
of the other measure. "Our ads were anti-density, theirs were
anti-developer and never addressed density," says Oregonians in Action's
director, Larry George.
Metro's strategy succeeded. With the support of Oregon's popular governor
and other top officials, Metro's measure won 66 percent of the vote. Oregonians
in Action's measure won only 42 percent of the vote.
Yet in a sense, Oregonians in Action's strategy succeeded, too. "I
voted for both," admits George. "We wanted at least one of the
anti-density measures to pass overwhelmingly, and that happened." Metro's
measure provides at least some protection against density, but if the other
measure had passed, George feared that "Metro and friends would have had
us tied up in court for years."
The victory of Metro's measure can hardly be construed as a victory for
smart growth. "During the whole campaign," notes George, "they
ran away from density and even argued that Metro does not mandate density
increases." Many observers believe that Oregonians in Action's measure
would have easily won if Metro hadn't confused the issue by putting its measure
on the ballot.
Yet it is clear that Portlanders still place a lot of faith in Metro and
government planning. "People are fed up with the increasing traffic
problems and other issues brought about by density," one voter told me,
"but they are not ready to defang Metro."
Since its creation, Metro built support for its policies by claiming that
they would reduce congestion and save Portland from becoming like Los Angeles.
In fact, Metro's internal documents admit that its plans will quadruple
congestion and that its real goal is to "replicate" Los Angeles-style
congestion in Portland.
Multnomah County, which contains Portland, was about the only county in
Oregon to vote against measure 7 in 2000, and it voted overwhelmingly for
Metro's measure in 2002. Washington and Clackamas counties, which contain most
of Portland's suburbs, voted against measure 7 and split nearly 50-50 on the
So the May election represents a mixed victory for both sides. The planners
won; density lost. How much influence the vote will have on Portland's future
remains to be seen.