Growing to hell?
This article was submitted for publication in the Eugene Weekly, but has not yet been published.
By Courtney Scott
According to Alternatives to Growth Oregon (AGO) that’s the direction we’re headed if the state’s growth policies don’t change, and fast. AGO’s main concern is environmental livability. Others have a more dollars and cents focus. But the debate over how, where and why to grow is raging up and down the Willamette Valley and out into Bend, Redmond, LaGrande and right here in Eugene in the unincorporated areas of Santa Clara/River Road.
Drive out River Road and you see all the signs--the no nonsense lawn signs are just the first cue. Talk to residents and it’s clear a battle is brewing between the City of Eugene and at least 500 of these homeowners. They believe the River Road/Santa Clara annexation issue is a prime example of a city riding roughshod over its unincorporated citizens. The Lane County Boundary Commission and Lane Council of Governments, responsible for annexations in Lane County, claim that annexation decisions are always made because a property owner requests it.
A land grab around the bend?
While property owners do ask the Lane County Boundary Commission to be annexed into the city in order to get permits to develop their properties, and many annexations are done in small parcels, that is not always how it works. A state rule allows for cities to annex huge chunks of land inside their Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) in one fell swoop. And noone in the community needs to ask. This is what occurred in Bend in 1998 and is what residents dread will happen here.
Jim Croteau, planner with the Eugene City Manager’s office states there is no plan to implement the Bend annexation model. However, Jerry Ritter, Secretary of Oregon Communities for a Voice in Annexation (OCVA) and Jim Seaberry, President of River Road/Santa Clara Property Owners Association, are highly skeptical. Jerry Ritter reports that Springfield made the same claim back in 1994 and then sprang a Bend-type annexation plan at the last minute. Jerry rustled up a petition to stop it, 3,000 voters signed it and the annexation failed.
The $64,000 question: who pays?
One of the main bones of contention is the cost of added services. Outgoing Eugene City Manager Jim Johnson stated recently that annexing the unincorporated areas of River Road and Santa Clara is important so that "residents there pay their fair share for city services." Out-of-city residents claim they are already paying for these services. In the unincorporated area of Springfield where Jerry lives, homeowners pay water fees, street taxes, contract with the city for fire service and call on the Sheriff’s Department for police protection. Jerry claims that he and his neighbors pay just as much as city residents. Homeowners off River Road make much the same claim. Jerry asserts the City Manger’s statement is a standard argument that cities use to drum up support for annexation among city voters. Since the city has many more voters than the unincorporated areas, and because the votes are combined in this type of annexation, it’s easy to see how the smaller numbers of residents outside the city limits lose the vote.
This is not the first round between River Road/Santa Clara and the City of Eugene. Back in 1984 Eugene decided to sewer the RR/SC area and assess the homeowners for the cost. The city claimed it had a mandate from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to clean up groundwater pollution, which the city blamed on the area’s septic tanks. Jim Seaberry hotly denies this was the case and insists what the EPA actually said was that effluent is disposed of better with septic tanks than sewers. But the city prevailed and by 1997, about 8,000 homes in the area were forced to hook up to the city’s sewer system.
Per the property owners association, this was an illegal move and it challenged the city in court. The suit was denied and when the Homeowners appealed, the judge, not arguing the merits of the case, ruled that the defendants had not filed their lawsuit within the time limits imposed. One of the big losers was homeowner John Neely who refused to "hookup to an illegal sewer"..and pay the assessment. The City of Eugene foreclosed the liened Neely property and auctioned it to the first bidder for $7,411.
Annexation is not the only way to incorporate land into the city. According to Jim Seaberry, all a city has to do is encircle properties on three sides with little acquisitions here and there, and bingo, there’s an island that the city can now take and tax. This is another factor playing into the River Road/Santa Clara border war.
The reason the City of Eugene takes these steps is often tied to state growth policies, which many claim are heavily influenced by the powerful building and real estate industries. Eugene, like every city over 25,000 is mandated to include 20 years of buildable residential land within its UGB. The problem is obvious. If a city has to keep supplying buildable land for eternity, the UGB as a planning tool is bound to become meaningless. Jim Croteau of the City Manager’s office thinks the law is unsustainable, 1000 Friends is working to change the language to "up to 20-years" to allow more flexibility and OCVA is working to repeal the law. Due to Measures 47 and 50, cities may also feel pressured to collect from more taxpayers to offset the 3% property tax cap. Measure 7, the "takings initiative" also throws a kink into land use decisions.
The 20-year buildable land ruling spurs a big need for planning and creates lots of jobs for planners. But, most would agree, without some kind of planning, Eugene or Portland would be like Denver where sprawl grows like weeds. Oregonians support land use planning and have defeated initiatives to repeal it three times in the last two decades.
Andy Kerr of AGO says it really doesn’t matter how much planning we do, our livability is headed for a dive if more people keep on coming. And this may be true. But barring any change in federal immigration policies, getting people who live here now to stop having as many children, or enforcing Tom McCall’s invitation to visit but not stay, there doesn’t seem to be much local communities can do to halt population growth in Oregon. The legislature could decide not to use the state’s Strategic Investment Program (SIP) which offers tax breaks to encourage corporations such as Intel and Hyundai to locate in Oregon. According to Mary Kyle McCurdy, Staff Attorney for 1000 Friends of Oregon, these incentives may or may not be the sole reason companies move here. Oregon has an abundance of clean water, (at least for now) and that may provide incentive enough for high tech firms.
But OCVA and AGO argue we don’t need any more engines for growth. Candace Guth of AGO stated that it would be better for the state to encourage smaller homegrown businesses. Even Carol Heinkel, principal planner for Lane Council of Governments, though she approves of the 20-year land law, says the state should not hand down mandates like SIPs but work with communities to build the economy.
Can we save the earth and grow?
The question remains whether planning can offset environmental impacts of growth. 1000 Friends of Oregon, along with the Farm Bureau are committed to preserving farmland. The Coalition for a Livable Future, Landwatch Lane County, 1000 Friends and others are busy hammering out ways to save nature from the onslaught of added development. Many claim that one of the best methods to protect water, air and green spaces is to redevelop inside the UGB, not sprawl outside of it. Jim Croteau cites the Pearl District in Portland as a good example of redevelopment.
This kind of planning is part of Metro 2040. Portland Metro area’s 40-year plan is the brainchild of the Metropolitan Regional Government and right now Metro is gathering public testimony about "where we grow from here." The need for growth is based on population projections that some claim are flawed. Many of the questions Metro poses are directed to choosing tradeoffs between environment and affordable housing for instance. Andy Kerr of AGO, who was invited to speak at a March conference sponsored by Metro, questions why the agency even bothers to ask for public input, when, as he claims, the plan is already a done deal. Jerry Ritter echoes this sentiment. When I mentioned Eugene’s new 2050 plan, designed to prevent the traffic and congestion of Portland, he said he had never heard of it and feels the public is mostly left out of these decisions.
The hottest debate is over costs. That’s where OCVA comes in. Six years ago, auto shop owner Jeff Lamb and others in his town of Philomath and across the state, decided it was time to take back the reins from the state’s control over land use decisions. They created OCVA and this group has defeated several legislative bills to defeat citizens’ right to vote on annexations. Jeff chafes at being called a NIMBY or an "anti-growth zealot". Since the formation of OCVA, some annexations have been approved and some not. After careful cost analysis, Philomath has approved all of its annexations. West Linn has rejected annexations five times and so has Corvallis. Albany has approved a few and rejected a few.
According to Jeff Lamb, most annexations happen because the city and county get together and create Service Provider Agreements, then proceed with annexations that do not require citizen input. Under ORS-195.205, however, cities do ask for voter approval, but the biggest problem for OCVA with this kind of annexation is that the city is allowed to combine votes. This is what happened in Bend, where city residents voted three to one to annex an additional 11 square miles of the UGB and out-of-city residents voted three to one against it. The larger voter base inside the city greatly outnumbered the opponents. If Bend had voted to amend its charter allowing choice on voter annexation before this came about, it’s possible the city would not have been able to muster the political will to utilize ORS-195. OCVA’s attorney Mike Sheehan says although annexations under ORS-195 have not been challenged, it is the intent of voter annexation charter amendments to rule out these kind of annexations. Besides trying to give more cities the right to vote on annexations, OCVA is also working to amend ORS-195 to require a double majority vote on UGB annexation plans. The ongoing crucial issue for OCVA is adherence to Goal One of Oregon’s Statewide Planning Goals and Guidelines. That goal of course is Citizen Involvement.
Eben Fodor, a planning analyst from Eugene, and the Governor’s Task Force on Growth concur that growth is exacerbating budget problems around the state. As it stands, developers pay a System Development Charge (SDC) for each home they build. Fodor’s study concludes that the true cost of growth for a typical home is $33,000, and only about a tenth of that is collected in SDCs. OCVA targets four areas where cities incur the most financial burden: libraries, schools, police and fire. Since 1989, State law has prohibited assessing SDCs for these four essential services. OCVA questions why this is when California, Washington and one half of the states have SDCs for police, fire, schools and police. To discover the answer, Jeff Lamb has a suggestion:
Follow the money
Laurie Segal of Landwatch Lane County cites another high cost to citizens. In order to appeal a land use decision, an individual or non-profit like Landwatch must pay $3,000 plus legal fees. Another challenge she mentions is that planning directors are allowed enormous discretionary authority and developers are used to getting their way. She also claims that the Boundary Commission approves every annexation brought before it.
For some, growth can have a positive effect. A friend of mine who lives and works in Veneta is convinced that the new influx of people is helping to revitalize this small town outside Eugene. The problem Laurie Segal brings up is the added traffic between Eugene and Veneta on 126, which is already congested at times, and could get worse as more development occurs.
Promise on the horizon
There are signs of progress. Recently, the 20-year law has been amended so that cities do not have to follow a previous 5-year growth trend in determining how much buildable land they need. This unknots some of the confusion for city officials and allows for a little more flexibility in planning. Unlike the original 1995 law, cities under 25,000 are no longer required to include a 20-year supply, unless directed to by the Land Conservation and Development Commission (LCDC). So far LCDC has not applied this to any other cities and if it does, Mary Kyle McCurdy of 1000 Friends will no doubt lobby to direct that growth away from farm areas and historical districts like Aurora and Jacksonville.
Mayor Mike Swaim of Salem included a cost impact analysis as part of the city’s annexation ordinance and increased SDCs from $2,500 to $7,500, a long ways from the real cost of $33,000, but at least a start. David Dodds, mayor of West Linn, has initiated an SDC for parks and a higher SDC for new homes is now in place. OCVA claims 30 member cities, representing half a million people.
This April, OCVA started reaching out to a wider audience to garner more support with a resolution to repeal the 20-year land law. OCVA has forwarded this resolution, along with another one to add police, fire, libraries and schools as allowable SDCs, to county commissioners, mayors, and superintendents of school districts, sheriffs and chiefs of police. So far a dozen cities have signed on. The legislature will no doubt feel the pressure of a growing citizen lobby during the 2003 session.
Laurie Segal of Landwatch is optimistic about the positive steps citizens are taking to create sustainable communities. She says a new alternative plan to the proposed West Eugene Parkway is in the works. Metro Councilor Bill Atherton, who has championed OCVA causes, is facing a runoff for his seat. Even if he loses, he believes there are enough votes in Metro to pass OCVA’s new resolutions.
The bottom line for many is how to create good neighborhoods, with plenty of green space; not cookie cutter homes packed into sardine can lots. Eugene has beautiful old neighborhoods, and a verdant river path, but the center doesn’t seem to have a clear plan. And West 11th is a nightmare. Good planning can perhaps provide more livability, but citizens feel they need to be a real part of the dialogue, a dialogue that includes more action on their recommendations.
Right at the edge of Eugene’s Urban Growth Boundary at River Road and Deacon where a riding stable once stood, a bumper crop of new homes is rising fast. An orchard grows just across the street, a lovely stream and swooping old trees adorn the street that divides Eugene from the rest of the state. The fate of this area remains to be seen. One thing for sure--residents are stirring for one hell of a fight. Now that a bipartisan Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Citizen Participation) Suit has passed, at least they can speak out without fear of being sued.
Citizen participation: the voice of the future?
There are no rest stops ahead. With all the laws introduced by the legislature to check citizen involvement in land use, OCVA says it has to remain vigilant to protect citizen rights. As Jeff Lamb says " they (development interests) only have to win once, we have to win every time." Recently a Eugene official has expressed interest in OCVA’s new resolution to add SDCs for public services. If tensions over budget shortfalls keep mounting as they are across the state, Eugene just may be the next city to take on a voter annexation drive.