News: CJ Exclusives

Central Planning Fails in Oregon

Onerous urban planning is driving former Portland, Ore. residents across the Columbia River into Vancouver, Wa., according to a community development director who warns that the story of those two states and two cities should serve as a caution to other urban centers.

Richard Carson, director of community development in Clark County, Wa., said Oregon’s mandated state land use planning from the 1970s has turned “the Mecca of American urban planning” into what he says the media now calls “Little Beirut.” Carson was formerly director of planning for METRO, Portland’s area regional government. Vancouver is located in Clark County.

“These are cities divided by good decisions and bad decisions made in the name of urban planning,” Carson said at a luncheon in Cary yesterday sponsored by the Triangle Community Coalition.

According to the U.S. Census, Clark County’s population grew by 45 percent between 1990 and 2000, while the three Oregon counties in Portland’s metro area grew by 23 percent. But Carson estimated that approximately 500 people move to his jurisdiction monthly, with most of them making the short jaunt across the state line.

“We can tell they come out of [Portland] from the (drivers’) licensing department,” he said.

Carson chalked up Portland’s problems to a statewide planning system that is centralized under the Department of Land Conservation and Development, a single state agency whose officials are all appointed by Oregon’s governor. While Washington has many similar state-mandated planning goals and urban growth boundaries, its development laws are created by its legislature and signed off by its governor. Carson called the Oregon agency heavy-handed.

“The agency literally ran away with the program,” Carson told the Cary audience. “They were making their own legislation.”

Carson says Oregon’s government infrastructure is deteriorating, as is its quality of life. He attributed some of the state’s problems to mandated density targets that require minimum numbers of housing units per acre; not permitting development outside of municipally incorporated areas; and annexation allowed only with voter approval.

Additionally, recent years have seen public officials override the desires of voters. Carson said a ballot measure passed in 2000 reformed “the most draconian property compensation law the nation has ever seen,” because he said voters were tired of governments’ excessive property seizures. He said that officials persuaded the Oregon Supreme Court to invalidate the vote, which infuriated citizens.

He also said voters twice rejected tax increases to expand Portland’s light rail system, but city leaders and the local transit authority circumvented the process and built the last 11 miles. Carson said the city is “autophobic” because of its fanaticism to get people out of their vehicles to use public transit.

As a result, Carson said, Vancouver and Clark County’s tax base is growing rapidly while Portland is “having huge tax problems.” He said his county routinely gets asked if residents of Oregon can attend Clark schools, “which of course, they can’t.”

“Planning is a good thing,” Carson said, adding that it should be used to accomplish reasonable goals, which other urban areas should learn from.

“Oregon’s great social experiment failed to measure up to political reality,” he said.

Paul Chesser is associate editor of Carolina Journal. Contact him at [email protected]