Bad Bill HB 4079

Oregon’s land use program, its communities, and its working and natural lands are under attack this legislative session. HB 4079 has been declared a MAJOR THREAT by the Oregon Conservation Network!

HB 4079 would bust open urban growth boundaries on to farm and forest lands and natural areas, using affordable housing as the ruse, when no affordable housing is likely to ever be developed.

This bill would allow two “pilot project” cities, one large and one small, to expand their urban growth boundaries by 50 acres each for residential use without showing that they need more land. The bill allows that expansion onto farm, forest and natural lands first.  In exchange, an unspecified portion of the 50 acres would be available for affordable housing – the definition of “affordable,” the percentage that would be “affordable,” and other terms are not defined.

Make no mistake, the bill is a trojan horse designed to be the first step in dismantling Oregon’s Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) system. The UGB system is designed to create compact and efficient cities that reduce local government costs for roads and infrastructure while protecting farmland for commercial agriculture. That system has been a great success in Hood River County. The likely effects of this legislation would be to burden cities with increased infrastructure costs, permanently remove some of America’s best farmland from production and make very little progress on affordable housing.

Land use laws require every city to provide a 20-year supply of land zoned for the residential needs of all.  HB 4079 sets a precedent that allows cities to avoid this responsibility. Rather than take the appropriate steps of zoning for all housing types, where people want and need to live – near schools, stores, and jobs – HB 4079 ignores the tremendous expense of providing new roads and pipes for water & sewage to more land at the edge; an expense that drives up all housing costs and renders very unlikely that any meaningful levels of affordable housing will actually be built.

For 40 years, Oregon had a land use system that protects farmland, forests, and wild places while blossoms-red-barn-Hood-for-webfostering compact, efficient and livable cities. The Urban Growth Boundary is a key part of that system. HB 4079 sets a terrible precedent that once breached, will be breached again and again all over the state for all sorts of reasons. The things we love about Oregon, the values that Tom McCall and so many others fought to protect when Senate Bill 100 was passed are imperiled by this bill.

We strongly oppose HB 4079 for these reasons:

  1. The legislature should give Oregon’s brand new UGB expansion rules a chance to work before tinkering with the rules again. In 2013, the Oregon Legislature passed HB 2254 which directed the Land Conservation and Development Commission (LCDC) to adopt rules to streamline the UGB process to make it simpler, faster and cheaper. After two years of input from thousands of individuals and hundreds of hours of work by the advisory committee and staff, LCDC adopted new rules which came into effect on January 1, 2016—less than two months ago! The need for housing—including affordable housing—is baked into these new rules. Let’s give the new rules a chance to work before creating exceptions to them.
  2. It won’t work. This legislation starts with the flawed assumption that if only more land was available for development, the land would be cheaper and affordable housing would follow. A February 12, 2016 report from Metro provides empirical evidence across a range of communities –Damascus, Sherwood, Hillsboro, Oregon City etc. –that UGB expansion does not lead to the results contemplated by HB 4079. The Metro report shows just 5,400 homes built in the last 16 years on 26,000 UGB expansion acres. Contrast this to the City of Portland where more than 5,400 homes are built in a single year. People want to live near jobs, schools and shops so they can have affordable living not just affordable housing.Not only is housing production slow in the UGB expansion areas, it is expensive. Overwhelmingly, the housing that has been created in the Metro UGB expansion areas is at the very high end –not the affordable end– of the market.UGB expansion land does not end up being cheaper to develop for two reasons. First, land is priced for its development potential. Once it’s brought into the UGB, that cheap piece of EFU is no longer cheap, the price is adjusted to reflect that it is now developable. Secondly, development on the fringe is expensive because extending public facilities and roads out to areas far from the urban core is expensive. In Hood River and many other cities, it is city policy that developers, not local taxpayers, bear those costs and that public facilities are only extended to areas that will be annexed into the city and brought onto the city tax rolls. HB 4079 anticipates this expense by allowing mixed-use development in the pilot expansion areas. Economics will dictate that the resulting projects will be predominantly market rate with only a token amount of durable affordable housing created. For a 50 acre expansion, we anticipate less than 5 acres of affordable housing.
  3. It sets a bad precedent. Our UBG system is designed to create compact, livable, efficient cities that reduce local government infrastructure costs while protecting resource land for commercial agriculture and forestry. For forty years, Oregon’s UGB system has given us the best of both worlds. It’s no accident that agriculture is still a prime industry in Hood River and Oregon. We have great farmers and great land. We also have laws that protect that valuable farmland for farming. HB 4079 is the first step of a slippery slope towards suburbanization of our productive land.Oregon is a successful place because for forty years we have had the discipline to follow thorough on our Statewide Planning Goals. The Urban Growth Boundary is a core component of that system. Over the years there has been pressure to relax the UGB rules for one special “good cause” or another that would benefit by cheaper land. Today it is affordable housing. In the past, employment lands and schools have made the same pitch for loosening the UGB rules. Ten years ago, the Hood River School District was searching for land for a new school. The price of land in the UGB seemed too high and they went to the legislature asking for special legislation that would allow them to build on EFU land. The legislation did not happen. Instead the school district bought 18 acres in the UGA, smack in the center of a new neighborhood. In other words, exactly where a school should be located. Affordable housing is the same. It should be integrated into the fabric of our developed urban areas, not sprawled across some outer suburban fringe.