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Another Win for the Oregon Regional Problem-Solving Process

The Portland region has had regional planning for nearly 30 years. Many in our region have strong opinions about the role of Metro and one of our popular pastimes, particularly during elections, is to throw stones at Metro and bridling regional planning efforts.  Given that undercurrent of resentment in Portland, it is interesting to note that last year Jackson County, and most of its cities, completed a 13-year journey to embrace regional government land use planning that at times resembled the silent movie, The Perils of Pauline.  These efforts had local governments, as well as their citizens, at loggerheads and threatened to give a black eye to the statewide planning process.

Jackson County is not an easy place for the State of Oregon.  Its citizens are quite independent and self-reliant and run the gamut along the political spectrum.  Ashland, and parts of Medford, are “blue” islands within “red” territory and it is safe to say that many in the county view statewide planning skeptically.  While all the cities’ and the counties’ land use plans had been acknowledged, the problem in the late 1990s was dealing with the future – particularly in deciding how much and where urbanization would occur.  The cities in the county had various views about how much land should be urbanized.  Ashland was more likely to embrace greater urban densities and keeping its urban growth boundary in place, while most of the other cities would prefer to expand their UGBs outward.  The county had the unenviable task of allocating population among its cities and unincorporated areas, which usually lead to squabbles over growth.

In 1999, then-candidate John Kitzhaber made a campaign pledge to seek legislation to provide local governments with a cooperative process to resolve planning disputes.  That legislation provided for those local governments who entered into an agreement for regional problem solving to have state financial and logistical support for a process to plan for the future.  The catch was that all of the parties to the agreement were required to enact the final product – usually an amalgam of plan policies, new or modified land use regulations, and zoning map changes.  The requirement that all the parties concur in the final product caused other regional problem solving efforts to falter, such as the one that included Polk and Yamhill Counties, dealing particularly with challenges associated with planning adequate transportation facilities in and around the Spirit Mountain Casino in Grand Ronde.

The 13-year ride was full of twists and turns, as the cities and counties sought to further their own interests.  At one point the City of Jacksonville, which was an original party, decided to end its participation, an act which threatened to end the process.  But the other parties continued the process without Jacksonville.  In addition, the expectations of landowners following the passage of Measure 37 (which could result in many more residential lots being allowed, with the consequent undermining of UGBs) and the expectations of cities that they were entitled to growth shares that would make acknowledgment impossible (because those shares combined would exceed the expected population of the County as a whole), were other significant threats to completion of the process.

It was then indeed a tribute to the pragmatism and goodwill of these very different parties that they cooperated (sometimes through gritted teeth) to produce a plan.  State planning and natural resource experts and a bevy of citizen volunteers serving on committees provided advice, and 1000 Friends of Oregon was judicious in its comments (although it had a legal arsenal at its disposal, just in case).  However, it was the planning staffs from the various local governments that, with truckloads of advice and the comments of the public, carried on and forged a plan that both the state and the local governments involved could accept.  The Regional Problem Solving Plan for the Greater Bear Creek Valley was acknowledged by the Oregon Land Conservation and Development Commission on November 15, 2012 with little opposition and without any further appeal.

The next steps require the local governments involved to implement the plan by amending their UGBs when timely, along the lines set out in the plan.  While there are sure to be disputes over the timeliness of land use changes, few will miss the squabbling over where growth should occur and where it should be located.  Savor it – if history is any indication, such calm is likely to pass.

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