Gov. Tina Kotek wants to give cities a chance to bypass state land use laws. But will they?

By Lauren Dake (OPB)
Feb. 26, 2024 11:33 p.m.

Kotek made a massive housing bill her top priority during the Legislature’s short-session.

Democratic Gov. Tina Kotek is hellbent on building more housing and willing to defy conservationists who have long backed her by giving cities a one-time chance to bypass the state’s land-use laws to build housing faster.

The governor is pushing one bill this session, Senate Bill 1537, which would funnel millions toward solving the state’s interwoven housing and homelessness crisis. But the piece of the wide-ranging measure that has arguably generated the most debate is the chance to sidestep the state’s vaunted land-use laws.


The measure has given members of Kotek’s own party heartburn.

Deb Patterson, D-Salem, who is on the Senate Housing and Development Committee, said she had real concerns about “chipping away at Oregon’s land use laws” and worried about the idea of “the death by a thousand cuts” to the laws that have prevented Oregon’s farms from being transformed into never-ending strip malls.

Yet, for all the discourse, it’s unclear which cities might capitalize on the land expansion.

“The odds of a city that qualifies and then jumps through all those hoops for the small amount of land, we are questioning, again, who is going to use this tool?” said Ariel Nelson, a lobbyist with the League of Oregon Cities.

Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek examines a mass timber affordable housing prototype at the Port of Portland in Portland, Ore., on Jan. 27, 2023.

Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek examines a mass timber affordable housing prototype at the Port of Portland in Portland, Ore., on Jan. 27, 2023.

Claire Rush / AP

A spokeswoman for the governor said the urban growth boundary expansion is simply one tool of many being offered.

“The one-time UGB [urban growth boundary] expansion provision is designed to be in effect until 2033, meaning cities would have close to a decade to use this tool,” Elisabeth Shepherd, with Kotek’s office, wrote in an email. “Cities that are not currently eligible may be eligible in the coming years, based on the land and affordability metrics outlined in the bill.”

To make a dent in the lack of affordable housing in this state, Andy Smith, the government relations manager with the city of Hillsboro, believes his city’s participation is crucial.

“The reality is that both the metro area and the Bend area are probably going to have to deliver the majority of the housing in the state just given the market factors and realities,” Smith said, noting the two cities are both high-growth areas with a housing shortage.

But under the latest iteration of the governor’s big housing bill, Hillsboro, about 20 miles west of the city of Portland, wouldn’t qualify and the city of Bend is unsure of their ability to do so. Smith believes Hillsboro was written out intentionally.

“If we were allowed to use it and it was workable, we would deliver and it would be done well,” Smith said. “[Conservation groups] don’t want examples of things that work done faster than the standard land-use process where they can tie it up in litigation for years and years.”

The governor’s housing bill would give cities a chance to bring in either 100 acres for cities with a population greater than 25,000 and no more than 50 acres with fewer than 25,000.

The story of Oregon cannot be told without a nod to its land-use laws; the policies that have protected the state’s forests, farms, beaches and mountains. But Smith, with the city of Hillsboro, said the land-use system was meant to be fluid.


“[The laws] create a sense of order in terms of growth and require us to do some forward-looking and strategic thinking about how we’re going to meet our communities needs and require us to do it in a comprehensive, systemic way and preserve farmland and forest lands,” he said. “But it’s a balance. And it’s out of balance. If our land-use system cannot evolve, it will break and we are getting close to the breaking point.”

Any city that has expanded its urban growth boundary in the past two decades must have at least 75% percent of that land developed or shovel-ready. Smith said those both rule Hillsboro out.

Cities must also be severely rent-burdened to qualify under Kotek’s bill. Right now, Erik Kancler, who lobbies on behalf of the city of Bend, said the Central Oregon city would qualify. But the city is worried they could soon fall under the required threshold.

“You might say, ‘well, great if your rental burden is dropping, then maybe you don’t need the one-time expansion,’ but the reason we believe it’s dropping is because the most severely rent-burdened individuals and families are just leaving the community,” Kancler said.

In most cases, cities would still not be able to develop on farmland or forest land. If they did manage to use the one-time bypass, at least 30% of the new homes built would need to be affordable housing.

Mary Kyle McCurdy, deputy director of the conservation group 1,000 Friends of Oregon, which was created to protect the state’s land-use system, believes if cities can’t meet the requirements it’s further proof that “we have not shown we need this bypass.”

“We have tens of thousands of acres inside existing UGB zoned land for residential development,” she said, adding what the state needs is more money for infrastructure.

Plus, McCurdy pointed out, the state is in the midst of a major rethinking of the state’s land-use laws already. During the 2023 legislative session, lawmakers passed House Bill 2001, which required cities with populations greater than 10,000 to identify what housing is needed and at what income ranges for the next two decades. Once the analysis is completed, the goal is to make the ability to build what is needed a more streamlined process.

There is also a part of the bill that some believe smaller cities could take advantage of, allowing them to swap out land that is currently within their urban growth boundary but difficult to develop for another parcel of land.

That piece is more amenable to conservationists.

“If there is going to be a release valve, there is the small-scale UGB swap in this bill and we would have just preferred that piece,” McCurdy said.

Shortly after taking office, Kotek issued an executive order calling on Oregon to produce 36,000 new housing units a year, up from 22,000 or so builders have historically created. It’s an aggressive goal and the governor promised the state would play a crucial role.

State lawmakers have about two more weeks to pass Senate Bill 1537, Kotek’s bill. The measure is scheduled to have a work session on Tuesday. Lawmakers have already scaled back the measure once.

It’s unclear if more changes will be made. But one thing is certain, changes to the state’s land-use laws can become contentious quickly.

Just ask Jaimie Fender, the mayor of Washington County’s King City, which sits just southwest of Portland. Fender said her city council has worked on adding about 500 acres inside their urban growth boundary since 2018. In the past decade, they spent millions of dollars on planning and community outreach.

The plan grew intensely controversial when certain landowners realized how their properties would be impacted. Eventually, Fender installed security cameras all around her home partly because the preceding mayor’s home was vandalized.

And earlier this month, the group against the land-use expansion has seemingly managed to recall Fender and other city counselors. The election results aren’t officially certified yet, but Fender said she believes she’s out.

“I’m assuming we are all recalled at this point and the economic impact of that to our city is incredible,” Fender said. “This is not going to stop the growth … all they have done is cost the city a lot of money and nothing will change.”