The Urban Growth Boundary

UGB at Bethany

The following post is by Nick Christensen, a member of the Metro staff. In order to get multiple points of view, embedded in this post are videos with opinions by local leaders about the UGB.

The 2015 review of the urban growth boundary is ramping up, and planners, developers and land conservation advocates are all angling for position in this year’s cycle.

They know the ins-and-outs of the process, but do you? Here’s a primer on the Portland region’s land use system, and why it’s up for discussion this year.


What’s the urban growth boundary?

It’s an invisible line in the dirt that separates the city from the country. Every Oregon city has one. But the 25 cities in the Portland region share one common UGB, managed by the regional government, Metro.

Why do we have a UGB?

In the 1970s, sprawl was dominating urban development on the West Coast. Leapfrog subdivisions, connected by ever-wider freeways, popped up on farmland around Los Angeles, San Jose and Phoenix.

Oregon has always had a bit of an independent streak, and on sprawl, it was no different. Land conservation advocates, led by Republican Gov. Tom McCall, got support for dramatic planning reform in Oregon. The core tenet was that the outward growth of towns and cities would be limited – not banned – in the name of protecting Oregon’s farms, forests, fields and deserts.

But if UGBs can be expanded, how do they protect non-urban land?

The system is built to make it hard, but not impossible, to expand a UGB. The basic rule is this – cities need to have room for 20 years of housing and job growth in their UGB. So it starts simple enough – predict how much growth a city’s going to have for two decades, figure out if it can fit in the UGB, and if it can’t, re-draw the UGB to fit in more growth. Overall, there are 19 “goals” that have to be followed in maintaining any urban growth boundary.

In other words: Dave Nielsen, HBA of Metropolitan Portland

Expanding the UGB, though, is both science and art. Economists and demographers can disagree on how much growth a city can expect. And even if everyone agrees that, say, Newberg will gain 5,000 more residents in the next 20 years, some might argue that many of those new residents will live in smaller houses or apartments – in that case, an expansion might not be necessary.

In theory, those disagreements are settled at the Oregon Land Conservation and Development Commission, a governor-appointed board that reviews UGB expansion decisions and whether they comply with state law.

In recent years, though, UGB reviews have turned increasingly litigious. Developers and land conservation advocates often appeal LCDC’s rulings to the Oregon Court of Appeals. It can take years for the Court of Appeals to review a UGB case.

Successful appeals are sent back to LCDC for further review, drawing the process out even longer. Woodburn is one example: In 2005, that quickly-growing city sought a UGB expansion of 979 acres.

A decade later, proponents and opponents of the expansion are still in court over the expansion.

What happens outside of the UGB?

There’s significant development limits imposed on rural land, in an effort to keep it rural. It’s hardly perfect – it’s easier to build a factory-like nursery on Oregon farmland than it is to build a small inn on an Oregon ranch or winery – but in general, it’s why you see farms, and not suburbs, in the Tualatin Valley or on the French Prairie.

In other words: Mary Kyle McCurdy, 1000 Friends of Oregon

Portland’s UGB

Why do cities in the Portland region share a UGB?

Portland is unique in that it’s the only place in the state where more than two cities border each other.

Lawmakers knew that it was unnecessary to have Wilsonville, Tualatin, Tigard, Beaverton and Hillsboro each maintain their own 20-year supply of developable land, since people often move between communities within a metropolitan area. So instead, the Portland region collectively maintains its UGB.

In other words: Lou Ogden, Mayor, Tualatin

Because of the shared challenges of growth, the Legislature made the Metro Council, directly elected by residents of the region, responsible for managing the boundary. The Council manages it within the confines of Oregon’s land use law, allowing for some human oversight of a technical process.

The Portland region’s original 227,410-acre UGB was put in place in 1979. It looked fairly similar to the UGB in place today.

Doesn’t the UGB cause density?

Yes, and it’s designed to. Oregon land use law favors places that have a variety of development types – apartments, condos and single-family homes, office buildings big and small, huge factories and small manufacturers.

If a city plans exclusively for single-family homes on one-acre lots for growth, that plan is likely to be rejected by LCDC, the state regulators. The law would likely require that city to instead offer a variety of housing options for people.

So that’s why Division Street, Williams Avenue, the Lloyd District and Orenco have so many new apartments?

The key is the variety of housing options. Cities like Portland and Hillsboro looked at their plans and saw wide swathes of single-family homes dotting the landscape. They re-wrote zoning codes, allowing for denser “urban villages” in specific areas, usually places well served by transit.

Those codes have been on the books for some time, but it wasn’t until recently that developers took advantage of the zoning. For the first time in awhile, there was a profit to be made by building up, and not out. That’s partly what’s led to the increase in density in the urban villages around the Portland region.

But density increases in those areas have impacts beyond their borders. Residents of single-family neighborhoods beyond Division Street, for example, have noticed that it’s harder to park in front of their homes. North Portland has seen dramatic changes well beyond the storefronts of Williams and Vancouver avenues. Even if the vacant lot two blocks from a home is redeveloped, residents of that home might feel impacts. That’s part of what’s driving the current conversation about how much density is appropriate in Portland.

At the end of the day, this is a nationwide trend, even in cities without outward growth management. Growth is happening in two parts of most big cities – around the very edge, and in denser areas within a few miles of downtowns.

Someone told me the Portland UGB led to the house next door getting torn down.

The UGB probably plays a factor, as does the free market. If a city’s zoning code allows for a specific type of development, and a developer can turn a profit by tearing down an existing house and building two on the lot, there’s an incentive for them to do so. People are still moving to the Portland region, and they’re going to need homes.

In other words: Tim Knapp, Mayor, Wilsonville

Because the UGB makes it harder – not impossible, but not as easy as in Phoenix or Dallas – to build single-family subdivisions around the edge, developers often look to “infill” to meet market needs.

Not every tear-down is replaced with skinny houses. Many older homes, particularly in Portland, have been torn down and replaced with larger homes, often derisively called McMansions. It’s possible that’s an effect of the UGB – those more expensive “estate” style homes, often located in large lots on the fringes of town, are hard to find in the Portland region. Instead, wealthier buyers go for larger homes in the city, or farms far beyond the UGB.

It’s also possible that it’s just more preferable, in the Portland region, to live in the city than on the edge. The region has one of the best small business climates in the United States, in part because of the balance the UGB places on small and large business. After all, a UGB doesn’t just make it harder to build sprawling homes. It makes it harder to build sprawling big-box centers.

So really, it’s a combination of factors – planning policies, as well as market realities, that lead to changes in communities around the region.

How does Metro pick where to expand the UGB?

A history lesson would be helpful here. In the olden days, Metro had to expand the UGB onto areas with the poorest soil quality.

If it was rocky, poorly drained, and difficult to farm or use for forestry, Oregon law pointed to it as a great place to build new homes and businesses.

That led to UGB expansions in the knolls of Happy Valley, Pleasant Valley and West Union – and eventually, to a 17,756-acre expansion in 2002, in the hills of Bethany and Damascus.

Because of their distance from urban centers, and challenging terrain, those areas were neither cheap nor easy to develop. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent building roads, pipes and schools across the slopes of Bethany to get new homes built there. And in Damascus, leaders continue to struggle to establish a government that can plan that city’s future.

Where’s the UGB?

Look up where your home is, and how close it is to the Portland region’s urban growth boundary.

Under Oregon law, development can’t happen until a city has a long-term growth plan. Damascus has yet to agree on one.

Almost everyone would say the old soil-quality method was broken. In 2007, the Oregon Legislature passed a new UGB expansion method, giving the Portland region a one-time ability to set aside high-quality farmland for future development.

These areas would be called urban reserves, and until 2060, they’d be the first areas targeted for UGB expansions. They’d be balanced out by rural reserves, areas that were off-limits to developers until 2060.

It took years of negotiations to agree to a reserves plan, but in 2010, Metro, and Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties all agreed to designate 28,615 of urban reserves and 266,628 acres of rural reserves.

Those urban reserves are the areas the Metro Council looks at for UGB expansions. They’re scattered around the region, from Wilsonville to Gresham, Oregon City to Forest Grove.

So you’ve got urban reserves – which ones do you expand onto?

Metro Council policy says UGB expansions have to be in areas that have some likelihood of actually being developed. That’s how they keep UGB expansion areas from sitting idle, adding to the region’s 20-year growth capacity on paper but really doing nothing to meet the need in practice.

The policy says that expansion candidates have to have governance, development and finance plans in place. It costs money to build the pipes, parks, roads and schools to service new construction, so the Metro Council wants to development happen in areas that have a decent chance of being constructed soon.

State law also says that the council should expand into areas that will be most efficient to urbanize.

What happens if, say, Wilsonville is growing quickly, but the region as a whole isn’t?

Not much. It’s one of the chief criticisms of Metro’s role in managing the UGB – that Metro, by law, has to take a look at the regional outlook for growth. That means that a UGB expansion may not be an option, even if one city is booming in the midst of a region-wide slump.

Many parties have asked for a “sub-regional analysis,” so that Metro can consider whether, say, the Gresham area needs a UGB expansion despite lagging growth elsewhere. That approach was tried in the mid 2000s, but the courts found that, under existing laws, Metro must look at this question with a regional perspective.

Vacant land and the UGB
Metro’s 2015 urban growth boundary (orange) isn’t very different from the original 1979 UGB (blue), except in key areas. The dark green areas are undeveloped lots inside the UGB.

The 2015 analysis

It still seems pretty basic – we need enough land for 20 years of growth.

But what kind of growth? A drive around inner Portland, Orenco Station or the Gateway District shows that apartment construction is all the rage right now.

Will multifamily housing still be the rage tomorrow? In 10 years? In 15?

According to Metro, about two-third of the homes in the Portland region are single-family houses. The other 33 percent are apartments, condos and townhomes.

Metro’s projections say that by 2035, that mix will be 60 percent single-family houses, and 40 percent multifamily homes. The projections say that two-thirds of new construction in the next 20 years is likely to be multifamily housing.

Some suburban representatives, as well as area home builders, aren’t so bullish. They see the apartment surge as an anomaly, not a trend.

And developers say there’s another factor: Even if the apartment boom continues, people will still want single-family homes, and they’ll buy them wherever they can.

That could be on the infill lot down the street from your home. Or – and this is a planner’s nightmare – those single-family homes could get sold in Estacada, Newberg, Battle Ground or Scappoose. Unplanned, disorganized or far-flung growth makes it hard to plan for services and pay for pipes, roads and schools.

So what do the experts say?

An initial look from economists and demographers in 2014 said that the region can accommodate expected new homes and jobs inside the existing UGB, consistent with adopted community plans. There’s enough land within the existing boundary to accommodate 20 years of growth.

Critics of that review look at two places when they question the review: Damascus and Portland.

Damascus, brought into the boundary in 2002 when soil quality was the determining factor for expansion areas, can’t have any growth right now. Oregon law requires cities to have a comprehensive plan for development to happen, and the citizens of Damascus have yet to agree on a plan for their future.

In other words: Andy Duyck, Chair, Washington County Commission

No plan means no bulldozers. No bulldozers means no growth. So how much growth can Damascus really expect to see in the coming decades?

Some people seeking a UGB expansion have an answer: None. They want Metro to mark it down as undevelopable until Damascus accepts a future course, whatever it may be. Then the question becomes where people would live, if they didn’t move to Damascus – and developers hope the answer would be in new UGB expansion areas around the edge.

Then there’s Portland. Its zoning, and Metro’s market analysis, foresee tens of thousands of new apartments and condos in the city in the coming two decades.

One look at the Lloyd District, the Pearl District or Division Street makes that sound not-too-far fetched. But when you consider that thousands of those new apartments are expected in places that haven’t developed densely yet, like Rosewood, Woodstock or Cully, it gives ammo to critics of Metro’s forecast.

But there’s a catch to arguing against more density in Portland. If the region’s economy cools to the point where that kind of growth doesn’t happen in Portland, would you need new land, outside the current UGB, for more development?

What do land conservation advocates say?

They’ve been fairly quiet on this UGB cycle, but there’s been one common refrain: If not this, then what? There’s no easy, obvious place to expand the UGB where development could start immediately. And new housing on the edge generally isn’t as inexpensive as it is in other cities, so conservation advocates argue it would do little to improve the region’s inventory of affordable housing.

In other words: Bob Stacey, Metro Council

And developers?

Developers have been critical of some of the projections made by Portland are too rosy for the Rose City. And they think that Metro should plan for a future with a greater diversity of new housing construction, ranging from apartments to single-family homes of many sizes. Some developers think that a Metro projection that 60 percent of new construction will be apartments is understating how much the market will want various forms of single-family homes.

I read something about urban reserves in Clackamas County.

You might have – the thing is, there aren’t any right now.

Metro, Clackamas County, and the cities of Tualatin, Lake Oswego and West Linn continue to discuss the Stafford Basin, that tree-lined, rural area along Interstate 205 between Interstate 5 and West Linn. It was the subject of a successful appeal of an urban reserve designation by the cities surrounding the area. After all, it was the counties and Metro that agreed on reserves designations; some cities, and private interests, objected to parts of the plans.

Until the status of the Stafford urban reserve is resolved, there are, on paper, no urban reserves in Clackamas County. Another lawsuit in Multnomah County means there aren’t any urban reserves there either.

So then what?

That’s a good question, and a legal grey area. It’s one of the reasons Metro is considering asking for a one-year extension to its 2015 UGB review, so that the legal waters may settle before a decision has to be made.

Public opinion

Does the public still like this?

Polling and voting indicate that voters still support the system. In a 2013 survey, the Oregon Values & Beliefs Project, found that “two-thirds of Oregonians consider protection of productive farm and forest land from development very or somewhat important.”

In other words: Cherry Amabisca, Save Helvetia

Two thirds also said “new development should occur within existing cities and towns to save farmland and stop sprawl.” Only 26 percent disagreed, saying new growth should be allowed to occur outside urban growth boundaries. Fifty percent of Oregonians said they didn’t want to see Oregon’s land use laws revamped to allow more development, with 24 percent supporting an overhaul.

But the data has at times been conflicting. In a 2011 survey, 70 percent of residents said they support keeping a tight UGB.

In that same survey, 80 percent of respondents said they support “building more neighborhoods where people can get where they need to go by walking, biking or taking public transit.” But only 36 percent said they favored “building more compact neighborhoods,” with 48 percent opposed. An aphorism, often attributed to former Metro Executive Mike Burton, sums up the conflicting poll data: “Oregonians hate two things: Density and sprawl.”

The closest Oregonians came to overturning the system was in 2004, when 61 percent of voters approved Measure 37. It allowed property owners who had been subjected to new zoning restrictions to seek compensation from the government. If the government didn’t compensate the property owners for the new zoning regulations – including urban growth boundaries – then the property owner could build whatever had been permitted under the old system.

Nearly 7,000 such claims were issued, including a massive claim by a timber company in the Coast Range west of Forest Grove. More than 1,000 claims came from Clackamas County alone.

In 2007, the Legislature drafted a compromise package and sent it to the voters. The plan, dubbed Measure 49, called for allowing a limited number of homes to be built on properties outside of UGBs, with some property owners entitled to compensation. It passed with 62 percent of the vote.

How can I have my voice heard?

Turn on your television, and start yelling at it, loud as you can. Scream. Shout. Maybe even do an interpretive dance.

That didn’t work? Ha. Well, it was fun to watch, anyway.

Write to your elected officials. Mayors, city councilors, Metro councilors, county commissioners. Tell them what you think about this, and what you want the region to look like in 20 years.

Elected officials, after all, are making the final decision. What do you want them to think about when they’re making it?

Nick Christensen can be reached at or 503-813-7583. Follow Metro on Twitter @oregonmetro.