Anti-UGB Guest Editorial Shows Ignorance, Absolutism and Extremism

On Tuesday March 27th, OregonLive featured a guest editorial written by James Zehren.  A Portland attorney and the listed President of an organization called “Smart Equitable Approaches to Regional Issues” (SEARI), Zehren claims in the article that opening our regional urban growth boundary (UGB) “would be expensive, cost substantially more than developing inside the boundary and it would take a long time.”  Take a look at the article here and then come back to see what we think of Mr. Zehren’s assertions….

 

For years, the building industry that develops UGB expansion land in Oregon has been vilified by a set of isolationist elites, like Mr. Zehren, who trivialize and oversimplify the existing land use process in Oregon.  “Greedy developers” are the only ones who want UGB expansion and if “the people” stand up against the “fat cat” developers goodness will prevail.  they use a circular logic beginning with the current UGB to justify their position on the future UGB.  This line of logic conveniently dismisses facts in favor of preserving high land prices, high rents and their own self centric, smug view of the world.

Follow Zehren’s logic in his article.  Greenfield development (a code word in their world for supposedly pastoral farmlands that should remain for their aesthetic qualities rather than their usefulness) costs more for infrastructure, which drives up the cost of housing, thereby making each house more expensive.  Therefore, we should never expand the boundary, we should just keep it closed and build up, despite what the buying public wants.  In Zehren’s world, he and his cronies get to make your housing choice for you and you will live in an 800 square foot condo or severely overpay for anything else.

While Zehren’s argument is standard from the entrenched world of NIMBY’s and enviro-activists, its intellectually dishonest.  First, Zehren assumes infrastructure cost is higher in UGB expansion areas because that’s what we have seen in each expansion Metro has created.  Zehren conveniently leaves out several major factors in why those developments cost more infrastructure wise:

  • The land brought in by Metro, up until the recent South Hillsboro expansion, has largely been “topographically challenged,” which is a nice way of saying hard to develop land with hills, creeks and significant resource issues. See Damascus, Springwater, Bethany etc.  The installation of required infrastructure is made significantly more expensive because of the land choices made by Metro.  Infrastructure expansion is not intrinsically more expensive, the factors under which it is required to develop determine its cost.

 

  • Zehren makes no mention of the fact that up until 2012, state law required “soil type” as a major factor, if not an overriding factor, in determining where the next UGB expansion would be.  This policy led to the selection of UGB expansions that were not adjacent to existing infrastructure and also to the inclusion of lands in places no person desired to buy a home and if they did, it was going to cost way too much to be marketable.  This criteria was removed in 2012 and soil type no longer plays a major part in the selection process.  This will lead to lower infrastructure costs as well.

 

  • Instead of incrementally bringing new land into the UGB on a yearly or even every other year basis, Metro waits six years and if they choose to bring land in its usually in enormous, unwieldy detached pieces that require massive infrastructure investment. If land was brought on incrementally and adjacent to existing cities, the cost would be significantly less.  Cities would invest in bringing their infrastructure needs up to the next future expansion through incremental growth rather than doing it all at once, which would normalize the expense.

 

  • each jurisdiction creates the list of “required” infrastructure for these areas and loads them up with pet projects, new standards and unnecessary costs. They see each expansion area as an opportunity to extort private development. The glaring example of this is Hillsboro’s requirement of concrete streets throughout the new South Hillsboro Expansion Area.  Never has that been a requirement in Hillsboro before, but now that new housing is being added, Hillsboro decides that standard makes more sense.  Every major expansion area features some new form of storm water mitigation or transportation innovation that has conveniently become newly required code for that area.  These new communities are not supposed to be fodder for demonstration of ground breaking infrastructure innovation; they are supposed to provide needed housing.

Herein lies the problem with Zehren and the anti-expansion extremism he is peddling.  Infrastructure has been more expensive in UGB expansion areas BECAUSE the choices made by local and regional government have made them so.  Zehren would know this if he was in the room for one of these infrastructure negotiations.  Sorry Mr. Zehren, you don’t get to make your case for anti-UGB absolutism on the backs of those who were in the room negotiating the deals.

Zehren also conveniently ignores the single largest factor for increasing home prices in the Portland Metro Area:  Lack of supply and a surplus of demand.  It’s amazing how much cheaper it was to buy land and homes after the economy collapsed in 2008 and there was no demand and a surplus of lots.  Likewise. When the economy is chugging like it currently is, the market flips.  Smart local governments (elsewhere) stay nimble and address these changes through timely expansion of their borders along with additional vertical construction.  In short, they use all the tools in their toolbox rather than just cutting one arm off and waving it around in the name absolutist, anti-growth ideology.

Let’s call this article what it really is:  The opening salvo in the 2018 war over UGB expansion.  Metro is currently considering expansion opportunities proffered by local cities and if we all play nice they might throw the region a bone or two.  Metro will laud the process as transparent and collaborative, but in reality, it will be overtly political and biased, just like it has been for the past twenty years.  The tired old argument made in this article by Zehren will be trotted out to whip up the NIMBY’s and anti-growth crusaders, giving Metro cover to make illogical, politically motivated decisions.

The real question is for anyone in the building industry.  What are you going to do about it?