Most farmers want their land to grow crops. Cindy and Chris Hodges want theirs to grow computer chips.
The couple owns part of their family’s 80 acres just outside Hillsboro. The land sits close to an invisible border that is now being argued over by state lawmakers, city officials and farmers as Oregon prepares to vie for a federal windfall.
Just past their fields of budding blueberries is the urban growth boundary, or UGB, the line that determines where development is allowed under Oregon’s 50-year-old land use laws.
The line’s proximity, the Hodges say, has made farm life increasingly difficult.
“We’re conflicted farmland,” Cindy Hodges said as planes from Hillsboro Airport flew overhead. “I mean, we are surrounded by urban uses.”
Their lumbering blueberry trucks fight to pull onto busy roads that once were less traveled. They worry people will walk into their fields if a proposed trail system is built at their edge. They fear the loudspeakers, shotguns and cannons they blast all summer to scare away birds will clash with approaching development.
“We raised our kids here, it’s lovely,” Cindy Hodges said. “And things change.”
For more than a decade, the Hodges and many of their neighbors have argued their rural lands should be put to better use. They’d like to be part of Hillsboro’s growth — and potentially part of the next major expansion of Oregon’s semiconductor industry.
They want to be brought within the UGB — a border that, for the last 50 years, no one person could alter.
“It’s not hard to see the writing on the wall,” Chris Hodges said. “It’s just gonna get worse and worse and worse and worse over time.”
The semiconductor race
This year, the Hodges may have their chance.
The Oregon Legislature is rushing to pass a $210 million package lawmakers believe will help the state secure major federal investments — a piece of the $52 billion Congress approved last year to expand the domestic semiconductor industry.
Part of Senate Bill 4 is old-fashioned state subsidy. Lawmakers want to pony up cash that can help semiconductor companies develop plots of land, plan projects and secure even greater amounts from Washington, D.C.
The thinking goes that such tech expansion, if it emerges, will pay off in billions of dollars in future tax revenue and thousands of high-paying jobs for Oregon. Lawmakers pushing the proposal frequently describe the opportunity as “once in a lifetime,” urging their colleagues to act quickly.
But the Hodges and their allies are focused on a different part of SB 4 — one that’s far less routine.
The bill would grant Gov. Tina Kotek the extraordinary power to expand urban growth boundaries by herself. She could bypass the state’s land use system if she thought doing so would create a plot of developable land that would attract a major project, like a massive semiconductor factory, or smaller suppliers.
There’s not much doubt Kotek will soon have that power. The Senate passed SB 4 on a bipartisan vote on March 29. The House is expected to follow suit in the coming days.
And as she casts about for expansion opportunities, Kotek is likely to have her eye on the Hodges’ property.
The land — not far from the dense cluster of semiconductor activity that surrounds Intel’s Hillsboro campus — is part of a nearly 1,800-acre plot that has been at the center of lawmakers’ bullseye as they consider where a game-changing new semiconductor project might go.
The city of Hillsboro has prodded lawmakers to make the land available for development, despite a 2014 deal in which the city and other stakeholders agreed to reserve it for farm purposes for five decades.
And a task force convened by top elected and business leaders last year ultimately found no urban parcels of 500 or more acres that could site the kind of massive facility lawmakers are now angling for. The group urged the state to take bold legislative action to help Hillsboro absorb more rural land.
“Some of these projects are going to require land,” said state Sen. Janeen Sollman, a Hillsboro Democrat who has repeatedly introduced legislation to make the Hodges’ farm and surrounding property fair game for development. “Right now, it’s impossible to find a site of that size within our urban growth boundary.”
Smaller landowners feel left in the lurch
Many large landowners in the area have banded together to present legislators with a united front in favor of development.
The Northwest Hillsboro Alliance, a group the Hodges belong to, told lawmakers in February that the owners of 1,200 acres along the UGB had signed a letter supporting urbanization. Hillsboro officials amplified the message that most large landowners would back the growth boundary’s expansion.
Some of these landowners have been fighting for urbanization since at least the “grand bargain” of 2014. That’s when, contrary to prior planning, their land was locked into “rural reserve” status — blocking urban development for 50 years and limiting the land’s value.
Now, their push to undo that designation has left smaller landowners like Jason Flint feeling frustrated and invisible. He and his wife share an 1880s farmhouse on a couple of acres just steps outside the urban growth boundary.
“Absolutely love it,” Flint said of the house. “It is the biggest pain in the ass I have ever loved.”
After the 2014 deal protecting his home from development, Flint put money and memories into the farmhouse. It’s where he built a staircase with his father-in-law and relished cooking pierogies with his mother for Christmas.
“It’s the time, it’s the people. It’s your home,” he said.
He doesn’t want to be forced into the UGB. And he doesn’t want to leave his home.
But the street Flint lives on is the urban growth boundary. The dump trucks rumbling down it are a constant reminder of Hillsboro’s tech ambitions.
“They are the sound of continuous construction here in Hillsboro. And it seems to be the way that Hillsboro wants it,” he said. “I don’t see a future that keeps me here. And it makes me incredibly sad.”
Flint says he’ll wait as long as he can to sell his land if it’s pulled into the UGB. But not long enough for a chip factory to grow at his doorstep.
“We will not be here when a backhoe starts to tear into the earth,” he said.
It’s not just people with land targeted for development who are wading into the fight outside of Hillsboro.
Aaron Nichols runs a 30-acre vegetable and turkey farm north of the area lawmakers have focused on. The farm isn’t on anyone’s map for a potential semiconductor facility, but Nichols has been among the more outspoken opponents of altering the Hillsboro UGB.
He says lawmakers and Kotek are on the verge of breaking the 50-year pact that was supposed to give farmers predictability when it was struck in 2014. How can he invest in his own farm, he asked, if at any point it could be pulled into the UGB?
Nichols says urban expansion is already cutting him off from nearby farms. He worries SB4 will make farmland fragmentation worse.
“You can’t borrow your neighbor’s tractor and expect them to drive through a bunch of neighborhoods to get to you,” Nichols said.
Opponents like Nichols argue the land near Hillsboro isn’t just any farmland; it’s home to some of the finest agricultural soils available anywhere.
“Growers around the U.S. envy the situation that Willamette Valley farmers have here,” Nicole Anderson, a crop and soil sciences professor at Oregon State University, told lawmakers last month. “These climates and soils cannot be picked up and moved.”
The pitch for expanding Hillsboro
Lawmakers and groups hoping to expand Hillsboro say the city has something just as valuable and rare: Its role within the nation’s semiconductor industry.
“A fact that may surprise many Oregonians is that Oregon is home to one of the world’s leading clusters of semiconductor makers, with perhaps the world’s top concentration of leading talent and expertise,” said a report issued by the Semiconductor Competitiveness Task Force convened last year. The group included elected officials ranging from both of Oregon’s U.S. senators to mayors, alongside business leaders and university heads.
Boosters often point out that Oregon punches above its weight when it comes to semiconductors. It has roughly 15% of the U.S. semiconductor workforce, with the most per capita workers in the industry of any state. Semiconductors are Oregon’s largest export.
But the state’s star has dimmed. Recently, Intel and other major semiconductor companies have looked to places like Ohio, Arizona, Texas and New York for major facilities, drawn by generous tax subsidies and available land. The same 50-year-old law that created growth boundaries around every Oregon city also has made it unwieldy to find large vacant industrial plots, the task force found.
“Our lack of industrial land is a chronic problem that has been vividly exposed by the surge [of] interest in semiconductor expansion,” the group wrote. “Year in and year out, Oregon misses significant opportunities.”
Some skeptics of SB 4 say the task force — and lawmakers — don’t have it quite right. Groups like 1,000 Friends of Oregon, which is neutral on the bill, believe there is likely suitable industrial land available within urban growth boundaries, but that the state just hasn’t found it. They say municipalities badly need funds to prepare those lands for development.
“Let’s identify the available lands inside our UGBs,” said Sam Diaz, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Oregon. “We have an information gap. We need that information going forward so Oregon and the companies that want to call Oregon home have that information.”
But entities like Intel need more than just available land. A consultant for the Port of Portland, Dick Sheehy, told lawmakers in February that to consider a new factory, semiconductor companies want more than 500 acres of flat industrial land that sits within 90 minutes of an international airport, and within half a mile of a major highway.
Three weeks later, Hillsboro officials appeared before the same legislative committee and made a hard sell. The farmland outside of Hillsboro, they said, amounts to one of the state’s best options.
“Without legislative action, a large campus site, as recommended for this area by our task force, simply cannot happen,” said Dan Dias, the city’s economic development director.
Economic opportunity and debate
If Oregon faces a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build wealth, so too could large landowners at the UGB’s edge.
That’s because land slated for a chip factory sells for far more than land slated to grow grass seed. Landowners with dozens of acres could face a windfall if they wind up in the UGB, then sell their farms.
Farm prices outside the UGB are in the ballpark of $15,000 per acre. Property records show Hillsboro has spent from $345,000 an acre to more than $660,000 an acre on rural parcels within the UGB that it wants for a semiconductor campus.
And industry can pay even more. Records show that, in December, Aligned Data Centers purchased land inside Hillsboro’s UGB for $1 million an acre.
Infrastructure such as sewer, water and power boosts the price of developable land.
Tom VanderZanden, whose family owns 247 acres across the road from the Hodges, said he feels urban pressure daily as thousands of cars rush by to access the Sunset Highway. VanderZanden is a founder of the Northwest Hillsboro Alliance and a key voice in the yearslong drive for urban status.
“Virtually all of the farmers around here, if they want their kids to have an economic opportunity, it’s not in farming,” he said.
Given the region’s growth, VanderZanden said, urbanization seems inevitable. And holding onto land until its value transforms is a sensible investment for the family’s next generation.
“I’m older. I don’t benefit very much at all,” he said. “But I think my kids would.”
Landowner Chris Hodges says money — even if it were millions of dollars — hasn’t motivated his push for urbanization.
“I don’t want to talk about money, honestly,” he said. “To me, that clouds the discussion.”
Both Chris and Cindy Hodges have full-time day jobs. His is in high-tech. Cindy Hodges says it’s a great career more people should have access to — and she thinks their fields of clover and berries could play a small part.
“It’s a perfect legacy for us to leave for this land,” she said.