Metro Changes Its Approach to Urban Expansion For The Better

Oregon law requires Metro, the regional government for the Portland area, to maintain an urban growth boundary (UGB) that includes enough land to accommodate 20 years of population and employment growth. Addition of new land to the UGB is always a political hot potato, because inclusion in the boundary can drastically boost a property's value, but also its taxes.

Normally, Metro must review the Portland area UGB every six years. This last occurred in 2015, so the next review isn't due until 2021. But the Metro Council decided to revisit the UGB this year, and for the first time the Council will consider requests from specific cities within the UGB as to where and how they should grow.

While this sounds perfectly reasonable, state law obligates Metro to expand the UGB not where cities want to grow, but where farm and forest land would be impacted the least. But those locations where farm and forest impacts are low are not always where growth makes sense, which has resulted in past UGB expansions with no corresponding development afterward.

This change for the better has been prompted by the region's acute affordable housing crisis. People keep coming to Oregon but find it harder and harder to locate housing they can afford. In past UGB expansions, Metro has assumed that most of the area's new residents would find housing in new multifamily dwellings that developers would build in the City of Portland's high density residential zones. But apartment development can be expensive, particularly in the City of Portland with its high land costs, high taxes, and extensive land use regulations. Also, not everyone wants to live in an apartment; affordable single-family housing is needed too.  Perhaps in recognition of this, Metro appears to be migrating to a position more in favor of UGB expansions for new single-family home growth and away from reliance on increasing density on land already within the UGB.

Forecasting growth over a 20-year period is not easy. Population trends change, jobs spring up in one place and vanish in another, and strong economies come and go over that time frame. Smart land use planning anticipates a variety of scenarios and balances a variety of interests. Metro's latest approach acknowledges this by not over-emphasizing protection of farms and forests, or over-relying on development of dense multi-family apartments. Instead, by listening to the suburban cities at the edges of the UGB about where growth is proper, Metro can expand the UGB in a way that will hopefully take some pressure off home prices and rents across the region.