Is Bigger Better? Bend weighs an unprecedented growth plan. | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon
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Is Bigger Better? Bend weighs an unprecedented growth plan. 

Hay farm today, auto mall tomorrowYou can't see Bend's sprawling auto malls and shopping centers, or the rows and rows of cookie cutter homes, from

Hay farm today, auto mall tomorrowYou can't see Bend's sprawling auto malls and shopping centers, or the rows and rows of cookie cutter homes, from Dave Hanson's hay and cattle ranch south of Redmond, but Hanson, whose family has been farming out here since the 1940s, can feel it - sure enough.

Hanson breeds brood stock cattle which he has shipped to as far away as Japan, but he wonders how long he and other farmers can make a living off the land when cities continue to chew up agricultural land to feed their appetite for new homes, malls and office buildings.

It's a real concern for Hanson as the city of Bend mulls an unprecedented expansion of its urban boundary, encompassing nearly 9,000 acres. And while only a small portion of the county's agricultural land would be designated for future urban development, the expansion can have far flung impacts on people like Hanson who could see a significant increase in water rates - 20 percent by some estimates.

It is just one more hit in a long list of cost increases that Hanson said farmers have had to absorb, which includes everything from fuel to fertilizers.

Eventually, he said, farmers will get out of the game, forcing Americans to import more of our food from places like China. While the Bend Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) expansion isn't likely to set off a global food crises - it does chip away at a potentially profitable niche industry that has the side benefit of providing open space.

Hanson isn't the only farmer or rancher impacted by the urbanization. The entire Swalley Irrigation District, which serves mostly small farms between Bend and Redmond, faces the same relative rate increase as urbanization converts farmland into subdivisions and shopping malls, shrinking the irrigation district's rate base.

"This is death by 1,000 cuts for irrigation districts like Swalley and Tumalo," said Andy Tillman, a llama breeder who serves on Swalley's board of directors.

Like Hanson, Tillman faces the prospect of higher water rates as current customers convert their irrigated lands into subdivisions and other urban uses. A former member of the Deschutes County Planning Commission, Tillman said he is concerned about the process that the city used to determine where it would draw its proposed boundary, which includes large tracts of land on the west and north end of Bend.

Farmers and ranchers aren't the only ones concerned, or impacted, by the proposed expansion, which the city planning commission and staff have been working on for more than three years. (The planning commission adopted its version of the map last Monday night and the city council is scheduled to hold a formal public hearing on it Nov. 24) Critics say the plan adopted by the planning commission last week flies in the face of Oregon's land use principles and rides roughshod over previous local planning efforts that have emphasized smart growth principles.

"The size of the proposed UGB greatly exceeds the needs and really goes a long way to discount the potential for redevelopment inside the UGB, in that way it's a recipe for sprawl," said Erik Kancler, executive director at Central Oregon LandWatch, a local environmental and land use advocacy group that has been monitoring the UGB expansion. Kancler said his organization has multiple concerns about the aggressive approach to west side expansion outlined in the current plan, including the increased risk of wildfire as the city creeps into forest lands, the higher costs of providing services and the impact on existing neighborhoods.

A cursory examination of the city's boundary proposals shows a steady march toward the current plan, with each successive proposal growing larger in acres at the prodding of developers and the Bend City Council, which last year told the planning commission and staff to go as big as legally defensible. In fact, city staff acknowledges that the proposal probably can't get any bigger. Whether it's defensible, though, is another question.

There's also a question of where the city chose to draw its new line, taking in a large swath of lands on the north and west side of town where the city's own analysis has shown the cost of providing services like sewer, water and streets is significantly higher because of the topography. Some critics have suggested that the city was playing favorites, expanding the west and north side boundaries to include land owned by some of the city's more well-connected businesses and families, including the Miller family (Miller Lumber) the Coats family (Shevlin Sand and Gravel) and the Day family (Hooker Creek) as well as Brooks Resources, which developed a significant portion of Awbrey Butte and Northwest Crossing.

One of the UGB plan's chief architects, Damian Syrnyk, said that's not the case.

Adding It Up - Costs of sprawl

Regardless of the process, critics have pointed out that by the city's own estimate, residents and developers will be paying more to provide services like water and sewer to the west side, which contains some of the most expensive areas to serve of anywhere in the new urban growth boundary. It would also require a new bridge spanning the Deschutes River canyon, for which the city has yet to develop a cost estimate.

The city's most recent cost breakdowns show that all the land north of Shevlin Park will cost more than $89,000 per acre to service. By way of comparison, much of the east side land proposed for incorporation in the UGB is projected to cost the city and developers less $62,000 per acre to service, according to an October cost of service map produced by city staff.

However, there's a question as to just which costs the city has included on the west side projections. The proposed bridge across the Deschutes, for example, is not included in the city's cost estimate and city's engineering staff has publicly stated that the cost should not be borne solely by developers. The rationale being that bridge would help to alleviate existing traffic issues and is thus a project of citywide benefit.

And developers have been slow to jump at the prospect of shouldering the burden of the costly infrastructure needed to service their properties that currently sit outside the UGB.

In an August letter to the city, a consortium of west side developers including Miller Tree Farm, Hooker Creek, and Brooks Resources, told the city that it expects the city to rely on "user fees and bonds in contrast to only using SDC collections or future developer contributions" to fund a new sewer line on the west side, one of the major pieces of infrastructure needed to open the area for development.

That's a fancy way of saying that the city needs to raise sewer and water rates to pay for the new line on the west side.

"Nobody out there is willing to step up and say we're going to take on these huge public projects totally as a developer expense. It's not a realistic assumption," Dale VanValkenberg, a project manager with Brooks Resources.

Again, the rationale is that the new line will alleviate existing problems with the sewer system, which some say is operating near capacity in some areas of the west side and around downtown.

Syrnyk said it's true that the city has identified the sewer as a top priority to alleviate pressure on the existing sewer network, but also concedes there is some capacity left in that system. For example, the existing west side sewer could service a portion of the Miller Tree Farm site, he said.

And the city is not without its own interests. It needs a new sewer line to service its own project at Juniper Ridge, bringing in additional lands on the north west side, including the 700-acre Gopher Gulch property controlled by Brooks Resources, would help spread that cost around.

According to the city's own cost analysis, the price tag for the combined North and Westside Interceptors is just under $40 million.

An Unprecedented Plan

Beyond the raw numbers there's also a growing concern among some observers about the sheer size of the city's proposed UGB expansion. Last July, before the city council gave its "go big" mandate to the planning commission and staff, the city's proposed land need stood at just under 4,900 acres, said Mark Radabaugh, a field representative with the state Department of Land Conservation and Development. Today the city's proposed expansion stands at just less than 9,000 acres.

Radabaugh, who will help his agency review the city's proposed expansion plan for conformance with state law, has followed the process for several years and has concerns about the end result. Late last month the department submitted a 19-page letter to the city outlining many of its specific questions. Radabaugh said he is preparing additional comments in preparation of the next public hearing, scheduled for late November. Among other things, the department is concerned that the city didn't follow state land use guidelines when deciding which properties to prioritize for future urban development. It also used extremely generous assumptions in its land need calculations. The result is an expansion of unprecendented scope for a community the size of Bend.

"I've dealt with as many UGB expansions as anyone in our agency," said Radabaugh who worked in the Willamette Valley before coming to Central Oregon, "and this is by far the largest. Even by (Portland) metro standards this would be a significant amount of acreage."

Some of the factors that helped push up the total land need is an assumption that the city will need about 500 additional acres to account for new "second homes." And a calculation that showed the city would need to set aside more than 30 percent of the total land for streets and public right of way.

"Thirty one percent," said Radabaugh, "is the highest number I've seen in my career."

As a result, Radabaugh said the department is going to be looking closely at the city's underlying assumptions.

For its part, city staff is comfortable with the reasoning and the result, said Syrnyk. He said the city's 31 percent number was based on a GIS analysis of the city's existing development. In addition, he said it takes into account that the city will likely have to do more to control stormwater runoff, using land intensive methods like roadside basins known as swales.

DLCD isn't the only agency scrutinizing the city's plan. In comments recently submitted to the city, the Oregon Department of Transportation wrote that it is "very concerned about the proposal to extend commercial and other intensive zoning along both ends of Highways 20 and 97."

The agency has already placed a de facto moratorium on the north end of town because of existing traffic problems. That decision has effectively stopped development at the city's Juniper Ridge project. At the moment, the city is working with the agency to find a short-term solution to the traffic issues that will allow development to proceed at Juniper Ridge.

However, adding more business and traffic will only hamper those efforts, the agency said.

Among the developments that the agency red flagged is a proposed automotive zone along the east side of Hwy 97 where the city proposes to cluster its automotive dealerships that are currently spread around the city.

"Creating a mega auto mall north of the existing UGB prior to identifying and funding the needed transportation infrastructure will create political and legal issues that will be problematic to deal with later. This will also likely make it more challenging to accommodate development at Juniper Ridge," wrote Mark DeVoney, ODOT's regional planning manager.

An Artificial Timeline

The size and scope of the proposed expansion isn't the only thing causing friction. The city's harried pace over the last couple of weeks has sent some of its partners scrambling to keep pace.

Radabaugh said the final push, which has occurred over the last month or so has included significant changes to the plan with very little time provided to agencies like DLCD for review.

"I don't think anybody has had a chance to read everything," he said. "Maybe some attorney in some office somewhere, but certainly not at our office."

DLCD staff aren't the only ones wondering why they weren't given more time. The Bend Metro Park and Recreation District was given less than two weeks to review the final alternative, which contained some significant changes to earlier versions, adding land in nearly every direction.

"Because of the time frame imposed by the council, it's led to some surprises and short notice," said Bruce Ronning, the district's planning director.

That in turn has left some lingering questions about just how the park district will serve some of the future neighborhoods with things like ball fields for youth sports. While the city staff has been open and collaborative, the time restrictions have been frustrating for the city's partners, Ronning said.

The Politics of Planning

Underlying the entire UGB discussion is an assumption that the city must act urgently to alleviate a shortage of land for housing and commercial purposes. Some observers, including DLCD's Radabaugh, say that the city may need to rethink that philosophy given the housing market crash.

A market in decline.The city, for example, issued more than 2,000 single-family home building permits in 2005 at the peak of the boom. This year, the city had issued just 235 building permits through the end of September. At the rate, there's no danger of the city running out of land anytime soon for new homes. Right now the city has about 2,800 identifiable undeveloped lots and another 900 plus redevelopable lots, said Syrnyk. But just how long it would take the city to absorb those is anybody's guess - possibly longer than four years, he said. Or maybe less, depending on whether the housing and credit markets rebound.

What is clear is that the city has been under tremendous pressure from developers and their attorneys to make the UGB bigger since it started the process some three-plus years ago.

It's hard, if not impossible, to say just who wielded influence over the existing proposal given that the city got comments from developers with interests on every side of the city. What is clear is the city's public about face on the lands west of Bend. These lands, which include the Miller, Day, and Coats properties and the Brooks property to the north, were originally omitted entirely from the city's UGB plans in favor of bringing in land on the east side of town, where it was cheaper to service. But over time the proposal has grown to include more and more of their property with each successive map. The current proposal includes all of the west side land eligible for inclusion under the city's General Plan - several thousand acres, including 700 acres on Brooks' Gopher Gulch property alone.

City staffers now say they are obligated to bring those properties into the city because they are designated as urban reserve under the city's 27-year-old General Plan. But it hasn't been without some prodding by west side developers who balked at being excluded. The consortium hired a Portland lawfirm to file a massive public records request in August 2007, raising the prospect of a lawsuit.

The city backtracked, and it's been backing up ever since.

VanValkenberg said it's wrong, though, to characterize the move as a strong-arm tactic. The group, he said, was simply trying to find out what criteria the city was using to develop its growth plan.

"I don't think there was ever a specter or threat of litigation," he said. "We just really wanted to know what was behind that initial map because it was anything but clear. It just popped out there in 2007 without a lot of input."

But one representative of the consortium, attorney Frank Parisi told The Bulletin last August that his client, Hooker Creek, was willing to pursue legal action.

But for some, the size of the expansion on the west side, given the costs and potential impact to existing neighborhoods, is just too much to swallow.

"It was the wrong amount of the wrong lands," said Nathan Hovekamp, the only planning commissioner to vote against the expansion. He and some other skeptics wonder how the city will reconcile its aggressive growth plans on the far west side with its earlier commitment to preserve the westside's walkability and neighborhoods - values that some people feel could be undermined by more traffic and the wider streets needed to serve future growth. Councilor Peter Gramlich said he is confident in the integrity of the process employed by the planning commission and staff. But he has concerns about the plans for the west side and the lack of consideration given to existing neighborhoods. Gramlich, who lives on the west side, says it's a concern that he is hearing from his constituents.

"We keep hearing that a public private partnership will pay for all this, but I'm interested in hearing about the public private benefit," Gramlich said.

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