Vanishing Automobile update #26

Portland Votes on Density

First distributed 24 May 2002

On May 21, 2002, nearly two out of three Portland-area voters voted to "prohibit increased density in existing neighborhoods." Opponents and supporters of smart growth, the planning fad that calls for increasing urban densities, both claimed victory, leaving many people confused about who really won.

Up to this point, all of the impacts of planning had fallen on rural landowners. Since rural residents make up only 30 percent of the state, their protests were ignored by the urbanites who were happy to have the state "protect open space" at the expense of the ruralites.

Portland-area residents were so happy with planning, in fact, that they voted in 1992 to create Metro, a regional government with dictatorial planning authority over twenty-four cities and three counties. Some people said that the ballot title, "Limits regional government," didn't accurately describe a measure that created the nation's most powerful regional government. But while a few voters were deceived, it is likely that the measure would have passed even with an accurate ballot title.

Rapid population growth in the late 1980s and early 1990s led to the development of most of the available vacant lands inside the growth boundaries of Portland, Eugene, and other of Oregon's major urban areas. Planners had originally promised to expand the boundaries as the state's population grew. To maintain affordable housing, Oregon law requires that each city compare the amount of vacant land within its boundary with the projected growth rate to insure that the boundary has twenty years supply of developable land.

Yet, as Peter Drucker reminds us, anytime the government does anything, it almost at once becomes "moral." Instead of being a flexible planning tool, the growth boundary became for many a sacred line. By 1993, a zero-option movement was growing that demanded no expansion of the boundaries, especially the boundary around the rapidly growing Portland area. As a result, the state legislature agreed that Metro could meet the twenty-year developable land supply requirement by rezoning existing neighborhoods to higher densities.

Metro anticipated an 80-percent increase in the Portland area's population by 2040. Its plans called for a mere 6 percent expansion of the urban-growth boundary-though the zero-option people have prevented even that.

To accommodate the rest of the newcomers, in 1995 Metro gave population targets to each of the cities and counties in its jurisdiction. To meet their targets, the municipalities had to rezone many neighborhoods of single-family homes for apartments and other high-density developments.

Metro insisted that local governments use minimum-density zoning, meaning that all new development in that zone be at least 80 percent of the maximum density of the zone. If you own a quarter-acre lot in an area zoned for 36-unit-per-acre apartments, you can't build a single-family house: you must build at least seven dwelling units. If your house burns down, you can't replace it with another home; you must build apartments or row houses.

This rezoning provoked enormous controversy in the neighborhoods in which it took place. Despite dozens of meetings crammed with hundreds of angry residents, the cities managed to rezone almost every neighborhood on Metro's target list. City officials told residents that they had no choice: Metro was making them do it.

Today, most Portland-area neighborhoods of single-family homes can point to nearby four- and five-story apartment buildings that have sprung up in response to Metro's demands for higher densities. These developments contribute to congested streets, crowded schools, and overstressed water, sewer, and other urban services.

Because the market for apartments was already saturated in 1995, developers built these high-density complexes only after getting millions of dollars in subsidies from Metro and local governments. Metro often buys land and resells it to developers at half price on the condition that they put in high-density housing. The cities then waive property taxes and development charges. Metro also funnels direct grants to many developers using federal funds that, ironically, are supposed to be used to reduce congestion.

In 1989, a group named Oregonians in Action formed to help defend rural landowners from Oregon's strict land-use laws. Rural groups had previously challenged the laws at the ballot box in 1976, 1978, and 1982. But urbanites always outvoted the rural minority.

The politics changed in the 1990s as densification began imposing significant costs on urban residents. So an Oregonians in Action measure on the November 2000 ballot easily won statewide support. Measure 7, as it is known, would require local governments to compensate landowners if any land-use regulations have reduced the property of their land since they purchased the land, the measure easily passed. The courts have since held up measure 7, but its success at the ballot box has left planning proponents worried.

In 2001, Oregonians in Action gathered enough signatures to put a measure on the ballot that would take away Metro's authority to require cities to increase neighborhood densities. Polls showed that most Portland-area voters supported the urban-growth boundaries but opposed densification. This measure should have led to a clear debate over the trade offs between density and expansion.

Metro responded by putting its own measure on the ballot. Metro's measure prohibited density increases in selected neighborhoods only, and then only until 2015. But the ballot titles for the two measures were worded almost identically. If both measures passed, the one with the most votes would prevail.

Metro's measure completely changed the nature of the debate. Instead of a debate over density vs. expansion, it was a debate based on demonizing Oregonians in Action. Metro's supporters never argued they wanted higher densities. Instead, they claimed that greedy land speculators supported Oregonians in Action's measure. Metro's measure, they claimed, would protect neighborhoods and restore local control without helping evil developers.

Oregonians in Action could have fight back by trying to demonize Metro. It chose instead to campaign for its own measure without impugning the integrity of the other measure. "Our ads were anti-density, theirs were anti-developer and never addressed density," says Oregonians in Action's director, Larry George.

Metro's strategy succeeded. With the support of Oregon's popular governor and other top officials, Metro's measure won 66 percent of the vote. Oregonians in Action's measure won only 42 percent of the vote.

Yet in a sense, Oregonians in Action's strategy succeeded, too. "I voted for both," admits George. "We wanted at least one of the anti-density measures to pass overwhelmingly, and that happened." Metro's measure provides at least some protection against density, but if the other measure had passed, George feared that "Metro and friends would have had us tied up in court for years."

The victory of Metro's measure can hardly be construed as a victory for smart growth. "During the whole campaign," notes George, "they ran away from density and even argued that Metro does not mandate density increases." Many observers believe that Oregonians in Action's measure would have easily won if Metro hadn't confused the issue by putting its measure on the ballot.

Yet it is clear that Portlanders still place a lot of faith in Metro and government planning. "People are fed up with the increasing traffic problems and other issues brought about by density," one voter told me, "but they are not ready to defang Metro."

Since its creation, Metro built support for its policies by claiming that they would reduce congestion and save Portland from becoming like Los Angeles. In fact, Metro's internal documents admit that its plans will quadruple congestion and that its real goal is to "replicate" Los Angeles-style congestion in Portland.

Multnomah County, which contains Portland, was about the only county in Oregon to vote against measure 7 in 2000, and it voted overwhelmingly for Metro's measure in 2002. Washington and Clackamas counties, which contain most of Portland's suburbs, voted against measure 7 and split nearly 50-50 on the density measures.

So the May election represents a mixed victory for both sides. The planners won; density lost. How much influence the vote will have on Portland's future remains to be seen.

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