Think Out Loud

Deschutes County keeps growing. What does that mean for the region?

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Sept. 22, 2021 4:19 p.m. Updated: Sept. 22, 2021 11:21 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, Sept. 22

People on small non-motorized boats float on a river.

People float the Deschutes River through Bend, Ore., in the shadow of Mount Bachelor Friday, June 25, 2021. Weekend temperatures were forecast to reach nearly 110 degrees.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB


Growth in Deschutes County continues to outpace the rest of the state. But as places like Bend continue to boom, how can the county grow responsibly? We hear details from Ben Gordon, the executive director of Central Oregon LandWatch, and Deschutes County Commissioner Phil Chang.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller.  Even after explosive population growth for decades now, Deschutes County is still the fastest growing county in the state. But as the Bend Bulletin put it recently, new data from the 2020 census confirmed what Deschutes County residents already know. After all, it’s hard not to notice a population increase of 25% in just one decade and the region is not done growing. So now we’re going to turn to the opportunities and the challenges that will come from all of this growth. Ben Gordon is the Executive Director of Central Oregon LandWatch and Phil Chang is Deschutes County Commissioner. It’s good to have both of you on the show.

Ben Gordon / Phil Chang:  Thanks for having us today,

Miller: Phil Chang first. So 40,000 people moved to Deschutes County between 2010 and 2020. What are you expecting for the next decade?

Phil Chang: We are anticipating that between 2020 and 2030, the county could add another 50,000 people.

Miller: Do you have a sense right now for where they’ll be? In the center of Bend or the outskirts or a new development in Redmond or unincorporated parts of the county?

Chang: All of the above. We have room within urban growth boundaries in some of our cities and some of our cities are reaching full within their urban growth boundaries and we’ll need to look for expansions and there are still thousands of as yet undeveloped private land parcels in the unincorporated county.

Miller: Ben Gordon? Our Oregon is famous, I think that’s fair to say. Land use rules which recently turned 50. Are they sufficient, in your mind, to prevent the loss of a really crucial natural areas or agricultural areas? When you’re facing population growth of this magnitude?

Ben Gordon: I believe that they are. A quick correction, is that Oregon’s Land Use System turns 50 next year, 2020.

Miller: Oh!

Gordon: So we are looking forward to a celebration of all the ways in which our land use system has positioned Oregon as one of the most desirable places to live in the U. S. And I think that is no place more apparent than central Oregon where we are feeling this population increase. But to get to the role of the land use system, I think the system is designed to absorb the growth in a way that creates smart, efficient cities which accommodate much of the growth, and preserve the farm and forest land that surround these cities and create that renowned livability for urban goers and folks who are also residing out in the countryside.

Miller: What are your biggest concerns though? About what this growth could mean?

Gordon: I think a few of the big concerns for us, there’s certainly natural resource considerations as we have more people. We have to pay attention to how we’re utilizing our limited water resources. We also have to think many steps ahead to accommodate the growth, so that it isn’t foisted on us. But instead we are anticipating the growth and how our cities and towns will evolve to continue to have a great sense of livability and accommodate the growth without sacrificing unnecessarily those open lands to sprawl.

Miller: I want to play a voicemail for both of you. It gets to one sentiment. It’s not specific only to Bend in Deschutes County residents, that goes back to Tom McCall years. This is from Maureen Sweeney from Bend.

Sweeney: We’ve been concerned about this for 20 years. I moved here in 1975 and I looked a number of years ago, into trying to get rid of ‘Visit Bend,’ because even 20 years ago we could see that we didn’t need a visitors’ association, that everyone already knew about Bend, and especially now with everyone being able to move here and work from online and so on.

Miller: So, Phil Chang, she’s not saying, ‘don’t let people come here’, to be clear, she’s saying ‘don’t spend money to tell people to come here’, which is different but sort of in that sentiment, you can hear ‘this place is full, we don’t want more.’ What do you say to residents who share that belief?


Chang: There’s a couple of layers to that question because we’re talking about visitor growth and population growth and the two are definitely connected because oftentimes people who decided to move here are people who have visited here in the past. To the specific concern about ‘Visit Bend’ or ‘Visit Central Oregon,’ I would say that our tourism promotion agencies are spending a lot of their effort trying to focus on ‘shoulder seasons.’ So we have a lot of hotel beds in the community and it would be nice if they were full many days of the year as opposed to just a couple of peak weeks in the summer. The concerns about Deschutes County being full are real. The concerns that Ben expressed, I would add that growth has the potential to really wreck the things that actually are encouraging people to come here. If we’re not careful, housing will become more unaffordable here. It’s already very challenging for people to find affordable places to live. Traffic congestion will get worse and we will lose thousands of acres of open space and habitat or the farm and forest land that Ben was talking about. So there are real concerns.

Miller: You just outlined a bunch of them and Ben Gordon did as well. Let’s look at transportation for a second, and Phil Chang first, how do you think about Transportation Infrastructure in the context of this growth?

Chang: One of the ways to think about transportation infrastructure is that we need to establish new patterns of development in our communities and those new patterns of development will enable more modes of transportation for our residents. If we build our communities a little bit more compactly and if we mix up schools and residential areas and workplaces, we enable people to commute shorter distances to the things they need to get to, and we also enable them to use many different modes of transportation, walking, biking.The way that you develop can affect how effective and efficient public transit is. I like to think of it in that way, that we need to develop in certain patterns to enable a more efficient multimodal transportation.

Miller: But Ben Gordon? Isn’t that pretty different from the market-driven status quo that we’ve seen, especially in outlying areas of the county, for decades now? In other words, bigger suburban style or exurban style subdivisions that are inherently car-centric.

Gordon: That is true, that sort of outdated approach to accommodating housing needs is something that I think you look at the cities and towns across central Oregon and each in their own way is working to address through updating zoning and code policies. It is, as we talk about how we grow, how to absorb the growth. That’s something that needs to change. So, to give you an example recently, the city of Bend, following the House Bill 2001 that the State Legislature passed two years ago, the city just updated its own code to make it shockingly legal to develop more than just a single family home on an RS Zone lot across the city. What that allows for now is developers, property owners who want to, can develop a property with more than just a single family home -- So a duplex, triplex, fourplex or a cottage cluster development. So it’s those ways in which we’re going to encourage some more infill, even in some of those existing neighborhoods that historically were built, this kind of exclusively suburban homes, hoping that that will create more of a sense of community. Phil’s point about how we update our transportation system, we need to think about it as our region having a whole bunch of hubs or nodes that we need to connect with a robust transportation system, so that people who want to drive can, who want to be a pedestrian or cyclist can be, who need to rely on a bus or other public transportation can rely on it.

Miller: When House Bill 2001 passed a few years ago and Oregon made national news, national history, by becoming the only state, at least the first state at the time, to effectively ban single family zoning in most of its cities. One of the big things we talked about was that there’s a difference between enabling developers or builders to put in duplex or triplex is, or cottage clusters in a place and actually having the financial system where they will do that. Are you expecting a real increase in density in Deschutes County or is it something you’re just hoping for?

Gordon: I think we will see it. The code has just been amended and now what we need is for the free market to dictate the inspiration. So it isn’t, as you said, it’s not a mandate. It doesn’t require someone to no longer be allowed to develop a single family home and instead choose these other types of development, but instead it makes it possible to. Anything that is driven by the free market, it remains to be seen how effective it will be. Our belief is there is such a need for what we refer to as the ‘missing middle’, middle housing, that need will inspire that type of development.

Miller: I want to play both of you. Another voicemail that we got. Let’s have a listen.

Jamie Cordell: Hi, my name is Jamie Cordell and I am a Deschutes County resident. The medical care in Deschutes County seems to be scant. It’s hard to get into. There’s long wait periods to get medical care for follow up. I’m a native Oregonian and this is the worst county I’ve lived in for medical care.

Miller: Phil Chang, medical care is just one of probably a long list of essential services that we could come up with that are going to have to increase, continually increase, to keep up with population. How worried are you that that’s not going to happen?

Chang: I’m very worried. The county provides a wide range of services that we are constantly scrambling to keep up with demand on. We provide solid waste management, public health services, behavioral health services, community  wildfire education, veteran services, 911. In  all of these areas we are strained to the utmost. In very physical terms, for example, our landfill is going to be full in nine years at current rates of filling. So, we need new facilities. We’re building a new health campus in Redmond in the next couple of years. We need enough workers to actually fill all the jobs to provide the services that our growing community is demanding. Healthcare is a uniquely challenging situation right now. We have seen how the Covid pandemic is breaking our health care system, straining our human resources to the utmost. And in some cases burning people out to the point where they’re leaving the profession. The human resources challenges in expanding Healthcare capacity are particularly acute.

Miller: Let’s listen to one more voicemail that came in from one of our listeners.

Chris Cappuccio: Hi, this is Chris Cappuccio. I’m a Deschutes County resident and I’ve lived here since 1997. The area is growing rapidly, just like you said. It’s a big problem. There’s not enough water. We had to cut off water for farmers a month early. Where’re going to build homes? There’s a lot of places to go. There’s a lot of land, it’s all desert, there’s no housing, rental is sky high. Everybody who wants to build has a build off, out in the rural, and there’s no water.

Miller: Ben Gordon? How do you think about the water situation when you’re thinking about newcomers or development?

Gordon: I think a byproduct of growth, combined with climate change is that it is testing some of our prevailing wisdom. It has been a common understanding that there’s enough water to go around to provide for municipal uses, for agriculture and the in-stream needs of the Deschutes River. More recently, we’ve seen that wisdom fail to hold up. I think what we’re coming to terms with, there’s an increasing number of reports of wells running dry. This summer, the Wickiup Reservoir, a key source of irrigation water, drained earlier than ever before. For the recreational fisher people, they’re keenly aware of the moratorium recently placed on steelhead fishing. So all that combined with how we accommodate for growth and ensure there’s enough water to go around, I think we do need to take a hard look at our systems, our irrigation systems, the way in which we’re using water, and not take for granted that our water resource is scarce, and through efficiency measures, through incentivizing the sharing of water through irrigation patrons and also taking a real accounting when it comes to development of the impact any new development will have on water is going to be essential.

Miller: Phil Chang. We just have about a minute left, but we’ve been focusing a lot. I’ve been focusing on the challenges, but just briefly, what do you see as the opportunities from this growth?

Chang: We can see in the growth that we’ve just had in the last decade or two, the wonderful things that more people can bring to our community. We have new parks, we have new schools, we have new infrastructure; now we have a four year university campus in our community. In-migration is bringing us brains, talent, energy, and capital. So those are the bright sides of growth. If we can manage the potential challenges of growth, well then we will be able to benefit from all of those things.

Miller: Phil Chang and Ben Gordon, thanks very much.

Chang and Gordon: Thanks so much for having us. Thank you

Miller: Phil Chang is Deschutes County Commissioner, Ben Gordon is the Executive Director of Central Oregon LandWatch. Coming up tomorrow on the show the synthetic opioid Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more powerful than heroin and other narcotics. It’s behind recent spikes in fatal and non fatal overdoses in Oregon and law enforcement agencies say that teens are getting the drug through social media sites like Snapchat. We’ll dig into the details. If you don’t want to miss any of our shows you can listen on the NPR One App on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Our nightly rebroadcast is at eight p.m. Thanks very much for tuning in to Think Out Loud on OPB and KLCC. I’m Dave Miller, I’ll be back tomorrow. Think Out Loud is supported by Steve and Jan Oliver, the Rose E. Tucker Charitable Trust and Ray and Marilyn Johnson.

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