After three years of work, in June 2010, with the concurrence of Multnomah, Clackamas, and Washington Counties, Metro issued its order stating what parts of the area would be "urban reserves" and what would be "rural reserves." The tag "urban reserves" was for farmland that Metro wanted to keep in large chunks so that it could be efficiently brought into the urban growth boundary over the next 50 years. The tag "rural reserves" was for land that would be kept rural, and out of the UGB, for at least the next 50 years.
Big money rides on these designations. If you own 80 acres at the edge of town, it is worth a lot more if it might come into the UGB, and be developed to urban densities, than if it's guaranteed to be farmland or forest for another 50 years or more. People who own land just outside the edge of the UGB pushed to get their land tagged as urban reserves. Groups that oppose development fought just as hard to keep prime farm and forest land out of the urban reserve designation, and to tag it as rural reserve.
Metro submitted its decision to the Land Conservation and Development Commission, which in August 2012 approved it, taking 156 single-spaced pages to explain why. Twenty-two parties appealed LCDC's decision to the Court of Appeals. The parties included Metro, the three counties, Hillsboro, Tualatin, West Linn, four investment groups, many individuals, and two non-profits. Today, a year after hearing the oral arguments, the Court of Appeals issued its decision, also more than 150 pages, but double-spaced. The court took a long time to issue its opinion because it had to read and digest 36,000 pages of material from the LCDC and Metro proceedings.
The short punchy summary of the court's decision is that it threw out the years of effort that went into that decision, and has bolstered a faction in the legislature advocating a "grand bargain" that would short-circuit the planning process and admit selected parcels in Washington County as urban reserves. The court sent the matter back to LCDC to reconsider.
I was prepared to support the legislators (led by Rep. Brian Clem of Salem), until I read the entire 150 pages of the court's decision. The short punchy summary is wrong.
Here's how I summarize what actually happened.
First, the main issues. (1) Did Washington County improperly condense into four factors the ten or so factors that the law required the county to consider in assigning land to urban reserves and rural reserves? (2) Did Metro improperly designate Stafford as an urban reserve over the objections of Tualatin and Lake Oswego that the transportation system wouldn't be able to serve it? (3) Did Multnomah County improperly lump developable land on the southwest (Bethany) side of NW Skyline Boulevard with higher-quality farm and forest land on the northeast (Multnomah Channel) side of NW Skyline Road? (4) Did Clackamas County cut corners in designating the Langdon Farms golf course south of Wilsonville as a rural reserve?
Next, the players: (1) In Washington County, 1000 Friends of Oregon and Save Helvetia challenged the decision because in their view the county designated desirable farmland as urban reserves, while some landowners challenged the decision because their land was designated as rural reserves, keeping it out of the development path for half a century more. (2) Tualatin and West Linn, which don't want Stafford to be developed, said that Metro's own record showed that the land isn't urbanizable. (3) In Multnomah County, landowners below Skyline on the west side said that the county should not have relied on the scenic value of the land east of Skyline to designate the west side land as rural reserves. (4) The Maletis family, owners of Langdon Farms and nearby acreage who have been itching to develop it for years, challenged Metro's authority to designate their land as rural reserve because it's outside the Metro district, and challenged Clackamas County's procedure for designating it as rural reserve. I'm leaving out a lot of detail here.
And now, what the court did: (1) It held that Washington County made up its own criteria instead of following state law, meaning that all of Washington County's designations of urban reserves and rural reserves are suspect. (2) It held that Metro and LCDC should have taken into account the traffic study that showed that if Stafford is urbanized, its road system will function at Level of Service "F" (standing for "failure," or "frozen," or some other f-word), which is evidence that urban services can't be provided there, and couldn't rely on the hope that light rail might someday run along Interstate 205. (3) It held that although Metro could evaluate "areas" for suitability as urban reserves or rural reserves, if a landowner objected that his or her particular parcel within a larger area wasn't appropriate for a rural reserve and pointed to some evidence to support the argument, then Metro had to at least consider the evidence and explain why it was including that parcel in the larger rural reserve area.
What does this mean? Overall the court thought that Metro did a reasonable job of analyzing the data and coming up with a decision. The court found, however, that Metro should have paid attention to the facts about Stafford, that Multnomah County had to look at individual parcels within a proposed reserve area if the owners made a decent argument, and that Washington County cut corners and didn't follow state law. Before Rep. Clem and his colleagues in Salem try to take this decision into their own hands, they should reflect on one point that I read between the lines of the court's opinion. The problem isn't with the land use system, and it's not with Metro; it's with Washington County.