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Woodburn Slowburn redux

OP-ED: Balancing agriculture and urbanization

Ed Sullivan and Carrier Richter

Edward Sullivan and Carrie Richter

The city of Woodburn has been the poster child of a recurring land use problem often faced by urban areas in Oregon. Historically, settlement patterns centered on transportation routes, especially rivers and coastal areas, and supporting activities such as farming and forestry. Expansion of those areas would necessarily trigger land use conflicts involving the very reasons for the settlements themselves. So it was with the mid-Willamette Valley community of Woodburn, in the midst of excellent soils that made that city a center for agriculture. Growth of the urban area would require urban use of those soils and the Oregon land use system required detailed justification for any expansion.

There were two failed efforts to expand Woodburn’s urban growth boundary (UGB), beginning in 2005. They would have allowed the city to plan, annex and develop lands around the existing city limits. UGB expansion in Oregon requires evaluation of two sets of factors: one relating to the need for expansion for the 20-year time frame required by law, and the other relating to the location of the revised UGB. Based on city population projections, additional lands for residential use were anticipated. The rub was over the total amount of lands needed for future residential, commercial, industrial and employment uses, as well as the location of the revised UGB.

The failed efforts related to the periodic review of the Woodburn UGB, a process that required the city and Marion County to submit a revised comprehensive plan to the Land Conservation and Development Commission (LCDC) for review and approval. This periodic review was designed to be friendlier to local governments by avoiding the more detailed (some say nit-picky) review by the Land Use Board of Appeals. However, both the local governments involved and LCDC must still justify the revisions under statutory, goal and administrative criteria.

The city and county originally submitted the plan to the LCDC in 2005. In 2007, the LCDC approved the plan with the revised UGB. After the 2010 remand, the LCDC again approved the plan in 2011 with new findings and without sending the plan to the city and county for reconsideration. But in 2014 the Oregon Court of Appeals again remanded the LCDC approval for insufficient justification.

After the first remand, the LCDC did not seek any reduction in future urban lands, but saw the remand as a findings issue and relied on the deference usually given to state administrative agencies by the courts, and simply rewrote the findings. After the second remand, it was clear that the problem was not only with the findings, but with the support of those findings in the facts in the record.

This time the parties to the appeal opted for mediation conducted by a former Oregon Supreme Court justice and her husband. Although long and involved, the discussions were cordial and resulted in the removal of a 135-acre parcel slated for low-density residential use and redesignation of a 230-acre parcel slated for industrial use to an urban reserve classification (allowing it to be at the head of the line when the UGB expands in the future). In addition, the parties agreed that two other areas would not be the subject of a UGB expansion for 20 years.  The settlement is expected to be approved by the LCDC.

Some observers have said that the UGB amendment process was too complicated; indeed, that complexity led the 2013 Legislature to pass legislation to “simplify” that process. If there has been any simplification, it has been marginal at best and does not detract from the overall requirement that the assumptions on growth must be reasonable and the numbers must add up – a departure from the first two attempts undertaken by Woodburn.

More than 10 years have passed since the city began the periodic review process at the state level. Those original assumptions are now well out of date, prospective builders and entrepreneurs may lose heart, and the program may lose one of its reasons for existence. But don’t expect the battle over whether, and to what extent, further urbanization will occur to end anytime soon.