Central Oregonians should not feel helpless in the face of rapid growth, but instead should get involved and learn more about ways to better manage that growth, a forum panel told a Bend audience Wednesday night.
“Central Oregon will keep growing because of the desirability of the area,” said Dick Johnson, a Deschutes County Road Department engineer and president of the local Zero Population Growth chapter, which hosted the forum at the Central Oregon Environmental Center.
And restrictions on rural land uses will focus more and more pressure on increasing density within cities, said Steve Jorgensen, the county’s transportation planer. That pressure is compounded by the fact that 80 percent of the county’s land is federally owned and never will be built on, he said. In fact, farm- or forest-zoned lands comprise 94 percent of the county’s property, Jorgensen said.
Outside of cities, the county granted permits for 13,554 homes in the past decade, most of those in subdivisions platted 20 or 30 years earlier. Bend added 4,367 new dwellings in the ’90s, a sizzling 31 percent growth rate, and shows no sign of stopping. In fact, Bend, which just hit 50,000 population with last year’s annexation, could be approaching 75,000 by 2020 and the county could have almost 162,000 residents.
Unless state land use laws change to allow more urban development, the county essentially will be “built out” within 20 years, building growth pressures within the cities. “Something’s going to have to give or we’re going to run out (of buildable lots),” Jorgensen said.
Even after Bend annexed and took over planning for areas within its urban growth boundary, the county’s workload did not diminish, evidence of the continuing lure of rural living, he said. Timber revenues for road repairs have diminished, meanwhile, making it tougher to keep up.
Catherine Morrow, a county planner for 10 years, recently left to help the West Bend Property Co. plan its 20-year project, NorthWest Crossing, between Skyliner and Shevlin Park roads. The plans call for several “smart growth” techniques, such as mixing uses so that kids and adults can walk or bike to a store or work, rather than climb in a car.
More than 40 percent of all housing in Bend has been built in the past 10 years, Morrow said, calling the figure “pretty extraordinary.” Everyone knows the resulting problems, from traffic and crowded schools to higher taxes, as well as the positive results: more choices in shopping and entertainment, for example.
While the region falls behind on basic infrastructure, most notably roads, “some of the recent development is really ugly,” the planner said. But state law requires that cities plan for, accommodate and manage growth – not an easy task.
Some growth better than others, expert says
There is a big difference between two concepts of growth: development, meaning things that make a community better, and expansion, which makes it bigger, said Morrow and guest Michael Kinsley of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colo.
“Development can occur without expansion,” Morrow said. The trick, she said, is to “enhance livability and minimize expansion” by eliminating subsidies that fuel growth and adopting “growth-neutral policies” rather than the incentives spawned in the deep recession of the early 1980s.
“It’s difficult to put the brakes on and slow the rate of growth without violating the U.S. Constitution,” she said, noting the areas of private property rights and people’s freedom to travel.
But steps have been taken to restrain growth in some ways, such as development fees, design standards and recent debates over requiring voter approval of annexations and even a rarely-heard word in Oregon: a moratorium on building, which the state only allows on a temporary basis.
“We can’t say we’re going to put a cap on housing numbers. It’s just not legal in Oregon,” Morrow said. But the goals of Bend’s new 20-year land use plan, such as mixed uses and more connectivity, must be turned into laws with teeth, she said, to bring about more “smart growth,” such as more efficient land uses, transportation options, narrower streets and clustering homes to keep more open space.
“People want multiple cars, their boats…large lots,” she said. “People don’t want to increase density. That’s very controversial.”
A big key to easing the crunch, she said, is to change one’s own behavior: to walk or bike more, sell a car, support locally owned businesses and the like. “You could move to Baker or John Day,” she said, jokingly, but urged everyone to “be an active citizen. … (Local officials) need to know what you want, not just what you don’t want.”
Schools look to change ways
John Rexford, director of support services for the Bend-La Pine School District, said they see only a bit of a slowdown from a growth boom that has swelled student enrollment by more than one-third in the past 10 years. Three new schools are now being built, bringing a total of eight new schools on line since 1992, thanks to voter approval of two bond issues totaling more than $100 million. Now, the district may need seven more schools by 2015, deferring needed maintenance and supplies while scrambling to find enough land.
Oregon lawmakers have rejected development fees for schools so far, and an initiative effort is under way. A new planning effort is considering whether schools can be built on smaller parcels – the new Westside high school takes up 45 acres – perhaps by building more multi-story schools.
The final speaker was Carrie Whitaker, executive director of the Bend Metro Park and Recreation District, which is considering putting a money measure before voters in May 2001. To bring the park system up to national standards, it would take capial improvements estimated to cost a whopping $148 million, Whitaker said, exclaiming, “Ack!”
The district is handing out questionnaires to learn how the public would split $50 among six goals, from maintaining existing facilities to acquiring needed park land, developing neighborhood parks, building atltic fields and completing the Deschutes River and Tumalo Creek trail system.
Morrow said the agenda is tough, but clear: “This community has to quantify what’s a sustainable rate of growth that we can support over the long haul.” She said other areas of the state have required “concurrency,” meaning development could not leapfrog ahead of the needed infrastructure.
Whitaker said there’s hope in that the city leadership is hearing from more than just the development community. “I think the political climate is changing in this city, in just the past two years,” she said.