Monday, March 28, 2011

Helvetia and Agricultural Land Preservation

What follows is testimony to be delivered tomorrow evening before the Washington County Boards of Commissioners:

As a transplant to Oregon some 14 years ago, what I have found so compelling living here is the natural beauty of the place and the willingness of legislators to protect that natural beauty. In the Portland area, this has traditionally gone beyond simply protecting natural amenities, but also in controlling urban sprawl that seeks to engorge itself upon the surrounding agricultural land. As many urban theorists - including Lewis Mumford and Murray Bookshin - have noted, cities work best when they are ringed by agricultural land that supplies them with food and green space. By historically protecting this land from development through comprehensive land-use management, the wider Portland area has been able to mitigate urban sprawl and provide Portlanders access to locally produced foods and wines.

Dense urban development, including access to local foods and wines are important today – they enable mass transit linkages and make cities more generally sustainable. As fuel prices continue to rise, and as formally sprawling, car dependent areas across the country, such as Detroit, find themselves forced to contract in size – the wisdom of the Portland model for controlling urban growth proves to be all the more apparent.  Our land-use policies should reflect the urbanization choices and opportunities of both the traditional city and of the future – dense urban development with preserved agricultural land - rather than those simply of the last 50 years.  It is for this reason that the urban and rural reserves process currently being undertaken by Metro is crucially important.  It is also why I feel that Metro is making an enormous error of judgment in designating some 352 acres of the Helvetia area as an urban reserve area.

The Helvetia area to the immediate North of Hillsboro represents an important example of an active agricultural area that supports the Portland area and helps to make Portland the City that it is.  According to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, Helvetia boasts the best soil in the state currently given over to cultivation (other areas with equivalent soils have been paved over, and thus ‘lost’ for cultivation).  It also boasts a vibrant local wine industry – a point that is especially important due to the primacy the state places upon protecting Oregon Pinot Grape cultivation.  Helvetia represents an important breadbasket for the Portland metro area – and one which will continue to prove more important as time goes on.  Additionally, the Helvetia area, due to its stunning natural beauty, is also well-loved by those in the Portland area seeking respite from the city and is a popular destination for cyclists. 

The idea that much of this area could easily be transformed into suburban strip development and suburban homes through the extension of Hillsboro is jarring and should be rejected as poor policy by both Washington County and by Metro as a whole. I take no quarrel with the need to allow for some urban growth beyond the current urban growth boundary, and feel that the urban and rural reserves designation process outlined by Oregon Senate Bill 1011 represents a sound mechanism for which to go about determining future urban growth areas.  Further, I understand full well that, as identified by Harvey Moloch, Cities are ‘growth machines’ and that Hillsboro feels compelled to grow in some way – however agricultural land preservation is a stalwart of the Oregon idea, and this encroachment into rural areas currently proposed represents a rejection not only of the legacy of former governor Tom McCall, but also of Metro’s very raison d’etre.

Indeed, the inclusion of Helvetia within the proposed urban reserves designation was previously rejected prior to Ordinance 740 and the reopening of the reserves designation process.  Residents of Helvetia, preservation organizations - including 1000 Friends of Oregon and others had protested the inclusion of Helvetia within the reserves area last year.  Indeed, all of the 624 acres the county and Metro identified in 2009 as suitable for growth north of Cornelius were rejected last fall by the state Land Conservation and Development Commission.  A workable compromise had been largely agreed upon by all involved parties that would protect Helvetia from development pressures. 

All that remained was a final vote on the process, which was scheduled to occur this past November.  The elevation of former Hillsboro mayor, Tom Hughes, to Metro President has changed this.  Hughes, in his role of mayor of Hillsboro had long called for the inclusion of Helvetia as an urban reserve and he opted to enact a Byzantine law in order to reopen a process that had, after much conflict been largely agreed upon.  Indeed, this move appears in many ways hubristic – the closeness of the election for Metro President hardly gives Hughes a mandate to enact whatever policies he would like, and I find it to be a violation of the Democratic process and the consensus derived agreement that had previously been achieved. 

Ordinance 740 was derived through a single nine and a half hour meeting from which many of the affected stakeholders were absent from the table.  This new ordinance changes some 352 acres east of Groveland Road from undesignated to urban reserves (Area D) leaving only around 233 acres west of Groveland Road as undesignated.  This proposed process of urbanization would destroy the community presently within the Helvetia area.  It would strip Helvetia of its agricultural riches and transform the area into featureless suburbia – what James Howard Kunstler calls “the geography of nowhere”.  Indeed, the unease of numerous Metro counselors in adopting this process speaks to the likely negative impacts of the process.  Councilor Carlotta Collette noted that: "It's only with deep reluctance that I do this."  This hardly represents the ringing endorsement of process that Hughes portrays it as.

Further, the rationale for preserving the remaining 88 acres on the northwest corner of Helvetia Road (near the interchange as urban reserves (Area 8B)) in last year's Ordinance 733 was said to be put aside to accommodate interchange improvements.  This designation also appears to be unnecessary as road improvement can occur regardless of designation and the designation to designate this 88 acre corridor enables urbanization on the north side of the Sunset, opening up the rest of the area to urbanization.  As a result, this too seems to be a bridge too far.

It is for these reasons that I strongly urge Washington County to uphold the democratically agreed upon consensus that was arrived upon in Ordinance 733 and to reject Ordinance 740.  To do anything else would be to both disrupt the Democratic processes within the state and hinder the long-term resilience of the greater Portland area while simultaneously depriving it of one of its greatest natural assets. 

Photo thanks to


Anonymous said...

Get'em, Alex!

Darrel Ramsey-Musolf said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Darrel Ramsey-Musolf said...

I can't help but say, that I am so, so impressed at your finesse as a planner. You have come a long way from the piss-ass contrarian of 2007.

You need to either get a policy/wonk job at Metro, or better yet (if you can stand the smell/stench), attach yourself to an up and coming politico, and become his/her planning anaylst/director.

You would be pretty kick ass.

farmland investment said...

This is great news, there is definitely not enough attention paid to agricultural land preservation today.