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Where To Grow, What To Protect? Battle Lines Being Drawn In Washington County

A long-term growth plan for the whole Portland region has taken years of work. But now all that effort could unravel, over a few controversial spots in Washington County.

The state rejected parts of the rural and urban reserves map last year. Now regional leaders have a proposal they’re sharing at public hearings this month.

As Rob Manning report, this new plan hinges on two contested areas: Helvetia and Cornelius.

Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to move to the Portland area in the next 50 years.

Rob Manning / OPB
Cornelius Mayor Neal Knight

Rural and urban reserves are meant to guide long-term decisions about where houses and industries will be developed for the newcomers – and where farms and forests will remain.

Oregon’s land-use system has long prioritized keeping development off the best farmland, based on how good the soil is.

That’s been a problem in Washington County. The county has nice, flat land that is prime farmland. Much if it is also next to highways, that developers covet.

So the other goal of the reserves process is to look at what local leaders wanted for their communities.

Rob Manning / OPB

The mayor of Cornelius, Neal Knight, stands on  a bridge over Council Creek.  This is the northern boundary of the city of Cornelius, in Washington County. 

The state’s land use board, the Land Conservation and Development commission, blocked Mayor Knight’s effort to create an urban reserve area here.

Knight says there are problems with Cornelius growing in any other direction.

Neal Knight: “You go east, you head into a huge wetland area….”

To the west is the city of Forest Grove.

Neal Knight: “Everything south that I can think of has a flooding issue, or enough of it does, I guess, to say it’s not a good idea, and it’s all farmland also.”

It’s farmland to the north of Council Creek, too. Under Oregon’s statewide land-use system, expanding onto farmland is a last resort.

Rob Manning / OPB

But Mayor Knight says under the new criteria for rural and urban reserves, an urban reserve north of Cornelius should’ve been allowed.

Neal Knight: “This place right here, already has a beautiful road right out to Sunset Highway. It makes a lot of sense that we go this direction. Anywhere you go, you’re going to interfere with something somebody else is doing. And you really have to decide what makes the most sense for you altogether.”

State land-use commissioners argued regional leaders failed to make a convincing case for development here. They say it should remain farmland. 

But Knight suspects the commission made a political decision not to upset farm advocates.

Now Knight is trying to play the political game himself. He recently took Metro Councilor Kathryn Harrington on a tour of Cornelius. He recalls sharing his theory about the Land Conservation and Development Commission – or LCDC.

Neal Knight: “Kathy Harrington, I don’t think believes me. She didn’t like my belief on that. But she did say ‘Hey, take LCDC here, show them what you got, I think you could change - if they’ve seen what I’ve seen, they could change their mind’.”

Rob Manning / OPB

Kathy Harrington: “The mayor has asked me many times ‘Well, could the Land Conservation and Development Commission change its mind?’. Well, I certainly can’t guarantee it. If he wants to go talk to them, he’s free to do that.”

That’s Councilor Harrington, at a recent leadership summit. She knows that Mayor Knight isn’t the only one who’s frustrated.

Kathryn Harrington: “Everyone has a crystal ball – if only the Land Conservation and Development Commission had been as intimately involved, and understood all the factors we considered, all the deliberations that we had that would balance all of those needs – but that’s not the direction they gave us.”

So leaders at Metro and Washington County have drafted  a new approach to the parts of the plan the commission rejected.

Metro initially favored just dropping the area north of Cornelius. That would have taken 600 acres out of Washington County’s 13,000 acres of urban reserves. But Washington County leaders, like county chair Andy Duyck, said that would leave the county short of land to develop.

Andy Duyck: “Every single acre makes a huge difference. And whatever acreage you don’t have for new urbanization, you have to accommodate those people within the existing urban growth boundary, which means a tighter and tighter and more populated urban form.”

So Washington County and Metro agreed to make up for the rejected urban area near Cornelius by allowing development in an historic farming area northwest of Hillsboro.

Greg Mecklem:  “My name is Greg Mecklem, and we’re in Upper Helvetia.”

Mecklem raises alpacas on his ranch off Helvetia Road near Hillsboro. His neighbors grow grass-seed and other crops. 

Greg Mecklem: “It’s probably every bit as good of land as Sauvie Island, yet you would never hear of a plan to try to develop Sauvie Island. I just don’t think it would never fly. It’s curious that they’re willing to develop, or put into urban reserve for development, the last of the best land in Washington County.”

Now Cornelius Mayor Neal Knight sees a potential ally in Mecklem and the advocacy group “Save Helvetia.”

Rob Manning / OPB
Greg Mecklem raises alpacas on his ranch off Helvetia Road near Hillsboro.

Mecklem told county commissioners that developing north across Council Creek in Cornelius is a better idea than crossing Highway 26 into Upper Helvetia. But he doesn’t think developing either place is a great idea.

Greg Mecklem: “I have to admit that I think the land along the Sunset is a little better, but having said that, the land north of Council Creek is very good agricultural land and I think it’s important agricultural land, and shouldn’t be developed.”

Farmland advocates like Mecklem say that rather than pitting one set of farms against another, the region should focus development inside existing urban areas. That means growing up, instead of growing out.

Farming advocates argue the state land-use board could find some of the same problems with Helvetia that it found already, north of Cornelius.

That’s not a pleasant thought for elected officials, like Andy Duyck with Washington County. He says another rejection could kill the rural and urban reserves effort altogether. And without reserves, planning would again be based on keeping development off of good farmland. And Washington County has lots of good farmland.

Andy Duyck: “If we have to go back to the old process where we use soil types – and it starts to affect us economically because there’s no room to grow - that’s when we start to see legislation happen that supercedes the process. And that’s the risk that folks will be taking if we don’t end up with some kind of reserves.”

Metro leaders, likewise, don’t relish the thought of their million-dollar effort to plan for hundreds of thousands of acres unraveling over just a few hundred acres in western Washington County.

Regional leaders are holding hearings this month on the plan. They expect for the state Land Conservation and Development Commission to review the plan in August.

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