Posted by: bkivey | 30 September 2010

Urban Limits to Growth

When the leadership in a community seeks to accommodate growth by expanding the tax base, increasing the housing stock, or provide more employment opportunities the usual method is to annex or buy land adjacent to the current community boundaries. Annexation may require approval by popular vote and if approved the land is assessed and the owner compensated at fair market value. In other instances a landowner may approach the city and offer to sell land. If a mutually agreeable price is reached then the land changes hands.

This process is complicated in areas that have adopted an Urban Growth Boundary (UGB). A UGB circumscribes a community beyond which high-density development is prohibited. This creates a marked delineation between the urban and the rural. In many places one need only cross a road to transition from the urban or suburban to a working field. In the U.S. the states of Oregon, Tennessee, and Washington require all cities to establish UGB’s.

While I agree with the idea of the UGB in principle; it goes a long way toward preventing urban sprawl, in practice the concept has been hijacked by vocal minorities who suffer from Perpetual Adolescence Syndrome and use the courts to make the process of expanding the boundaries difficult and expensive at best and impossible at worst. Chief among those opposing the expansion of UGB’s in Oregon is an organization known as 1000 Friends of Oregon. The mindset of this group is evident on the “History” page where the group refers to the use of legal action three times in a statement of 234 words.

The actual law in Oregon contains reasonable provisions for adjusting UGB limits based on population growth and demonstrable need to attract business (i.e. jobs and tax base) to accommodate a growing population. While there are many hoops to jump through and any number of government agencies to satisfy the process is not inherently unworkable. What compromises the viability of the process is the ideological resistance by groups such as 1000 Friends who don’t want to see any change for any reason whatsoever.

People in general are resistant to change, but reasonable people realize that change is inevitable and work to accommodate and compromise so that change may be fashioned according to their desires to the extent practicable. To flatly oppose change because of some fantasy where the world remains steady-state is immature, irresponsible, and unrealistic. This attitude is also more than a little arrogant and condescending to their fellow citizens, because organizations like 1000 Friends oppose  and actively work to obstruct sales of land from private landowners to cities. In a legal transaction between two consenting parties it’s no one else’s business what goes on, even if you don’t happen to like the results. 1000 Friends doesn’t seem to have any problem telling people that they’re too stupid to know what they’re doing because they engage in practices to which 1000 Friends objects.

Critics of expanding UGB’s chant the mantra of ‘up, not out’, as an alternative to lateral expansion by increasing building density. While this is a superficially attractive idea, there are a couple of serious problems with this approach. When a community is ‘built-out’, and there’s no where else to go but up, land prices increase dramatically. This means that if more housing is needed, one of two things are going to happen. The developer that bought the land will have to charge more for the same housing to recoup their investment or the city will have to offer housing increasingly subsidized by the community at large. In either case housing in the community becomes more expensive without a commensurate increase in wages.

The other problem with the vertical development mantra is that it’s not realistic for industrial development. The sort of folks who are members of groups like 1000 Friends also tend to agitate for ‘living wage’ jobs. Well, most jobs that pay a ‘living wage’ require some sort of industrial base, and you can’t stack factories on top of each other. It is axiomatic that an industrial base requires a substantial land base, and many communities across America were built as farming centers, so any community expansion will require encroaching on farmland.

There is an intellectual incoherence among people who on the one hand want thriving communities and on the other oppose the steps necessary to create those communities through public annexation or private transactions. It is well and good to have some limits to unchecked urban expansion; it is unconscionable to force others into some sort of 19th-century straightjacket in order to appease an adolescent fantasy about the way things ought to be.



  1. Although formerly a big booster of the urban growth boundary idea, I’ve come to share some of this writer’s opinions. It’s definitely impractical to build up, not out, in some situations. And when population or number of households are growing, I also see the possibility of a commensurate level of expansion of the urban footprint.

    What tends to happen, though, is that politicians can’t resist the pleas of those who give them campaign contributions (i.e. developers) and tend to allow more urban development than is necessary to accommodate true population and/or houshold formation growth.

    So I’ve come to understand the urban growth boundary as a self-restraint, somewhat akin to having a commission study military base closures or legislative pay hikes simply because politicans know they won’t be objective enough to do the right thing.

    A pity, really.

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