This week, OPB launches a special project: Growing Oregon. It’s a deep dive into the history of Oregon’s unique approach to managing its land and the impact that growth system has on all of our lives, every single day.
OPB senior political reporter Jeff Mapes has spent more than a year reporting, writing and producing this podcast and web series, and we encourage you to read and listen to the entire thing. But we also know you’re busy. So for each installment, we’ll offer a boiled down version designed to make you feel a little smarter about why Oregon is the way it is and, we hope, whet your appetite to go deeper.
This week: When Oregon’s farms and scenic beauty were under attack
Oregon is special
If you think Oregon looks and feels different from other parts of the United States, you’re right. Over the past 50 years, we’ve managed to maintain a comparatively stunning amount of farmland and open space despite rapid population growth.
And that’s largely because of our strict controls on where new homes, businesses and roads can go.
It could have gone very differently
After World War II, post-war prosperity and the growing ubiquity of the automobile led developers and customers to build further and further into the countryside.
These new suburban communities were predominately white – racial covenants, shady bank practices and intimidation both subtle and overt made it very hard for people of color to buy into this suburban version of the American dream.
One impact: huge environmental problems. More cars going more miles meant more air pollution. Runoff from new subdivisions polluted streams and lakes – even bays and oceans. Developers looking for cheap land often jumped beyond city water and sewer systems. As a result, new homeowners relied on wells and septic tanks, many of which failed. This helped create the modern environmental movement.
Tom McCall sounds the call
Oregon experienced its own version of a suburban boom in the 1950s and 1960s, with similar results.
In a 1962 documentary on Portland’s KGW TV, “Pollution in Paradise,” political reporter and commentator Tom McCall documented the environmental impact of rapid, unchecked growth. He called out industrial polluters by name. And he spotlighted local sewage officials unable to keep up with growth.
The documentary led to new pollution regulations and restarted McCall’s nascent political career. He was elected secretary of state in 1964 and governor in 1966.
Quality of life in Oregon – which he frequently tied to the land – was his priority.
In 1967, he convinced the state legislature to pass bills making it clear that the entire Oregon coastline belongs to the public, not private property owners.
Then he turned to land use.
The Willamette Valley was in trouble
In the late 1960s, farmers and elected leaders saw trouble on the horizon for the Willamette Valley, which was both the heart of the state’s agricultural industry and prime real estate as the population boomed. After all, they had seen entire farm regions – like the Santa Clara Valley –paved over next door in California.
Portland’s business elite put up some $100 million to build a development for 2,000 people. The project, called Charbonneau, would sit almost 20 miles from downtown Portland amid the forest and farmland of rural Clackamas County.
The project attracted vocal opposition from farmers worried their land might be next. Environmentalists worried about the potential impact of building so many homes so far from basic urban services.
McCall formed a task force to look into the development. It warned of the long-term impact on the state’s farmland supply and environment.
The report also noted that plenty of other smaller developments were also in the works – and that more than a quarter of the valley’s agricultural land had already been paved over.
But the most striking finding McCall’s group made came when members looked at what exactly the state could do about this dramatic threat to Oregon’s land and quality of life:
Absolutely nothing – unless state leaders changed the rules.
Next week: How an unlikely group of political allies came up with the country’s most unique – and controversial – system for managing growth.