The Best Laid Plans
Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 1981. The Best Laid Plans. Earthwatch Oregon. July/August. 23.
By Andy Kerr
My work takes me to most of the places in our sovereign state of Oregon. I see some evil things happening. Sprawl in Portland, and Ashland, and Eugene. Corvallis, Albany, Newberg, Harrisburg and all the burgs in between—the story is the same. I see the valleys of the Rogue, Umpqua, and the Willamette changing. Not so slowly, and just as surely, they are turning into that Oregon anathema: southern California.
And this is Oregon—land of the bottle deposit, public beaches, bike paths, land use planning and other progressive legislation. The land use planning law, ballyhooed as a great and wonderful thing, has strong public support. Every effort to throw it out has failed.
I'm the first to admit that I don't follow land use issues closely. Most of my thoughts are farther upslope. My opinions are based on casual, though lifelong observations from the outside. But, from what I've seen, I'm just not impressed with our land use planning laws and the Land Conservation and Development Commission. It seems to be all procedures and almost no substance—and contradictory besides. We establish "goals" under the law which requires preservation of farmland and concurrent promotion of economic development. In my book those things are usually incompatible. Even the name is contradictory: land conservation and development. It is hard to have an effective law with such built-in ambiguities.
The emphasis on procedures is at the heart of my dilemma. The effect of the whole process seems to be the creation of a series of barriers and delays called due process: hearings, evidence, appeals, public meetings, comprehensive plans, zoning. Gladly, the process has halted some of the most ill-conceived projects and forced major modification of others. And it's certain that we're better off with what we have than no land use laws at all. But the barriers have done little to halt the gradual destruction of the idea that is Oregon.
Running through this gauntlet of procedures, most developers seem to escape with their plans largely intact. It reminds me of man's efforts to exterminate coyotes. Our elaborate traps succeed in getting rid of the less intelligent animals, leaving the most crafty critters free to reproduce more of their kind. In land use, we have developed a kind of selection process that is creating a strain of unbeatable developers.
The way things are going, I think western Oregon is on a direct course to becoming another Los Angeles. Not the same course, for sure, for land use planning slows the process, but we're moving that way just the same. Perhaps the planning process can spare us some of the problems of sprawl. Hopefully society can learn to assess the costs of development directly on those who benefit, instead of the population at large. Perhaps the land use process will give us more open space, more mass transit, efficient urban services, and all those things that accrue from "planned growth."
But we will also have all those people, and their dwellings, and their cars, and their sewage, and their crime.
More cities, suburbs and developments. What we won't have are farms and ranches, forests and orchards. What we will have are all those things Oregonians look on with scorn—a kind of Northwest megalopolis. It may be better than L.A., but it will be L.A. just the same.
I don't want a better Los Angeles in Oregon. Remember those bumper stickers a few years ago that said "Don't Californicate Oregon?" Now they have stickers in Boise that say "Don't Oregonize Idaho." Will our neighbors to the east start to talk about Portland and the Willamette Valley with the same disdain we reserve for L.A. and the San Fernando Valley?
I think it's time to put some teeth in Oregon's land use laws. It's time to stop growing for the sake of growth—"the philosophy of a cancer cell," as Edward Abbey calls it. There are many people, including respected environmentalists, who object strenuously. "You can't stop growth," they say, "you can only control it." The only answer, the argument goes, is to direct growth. That's not an answer. Maybe it'll take us twice as long to become L.A. North, because we're going half as fast, but we'll get there just the same.
I'll turn to an analogy from a field with which I'm familiar: Conservationists often decry the rate at which we're liquidating our old growth forests. Conservationists are staunch defenders of "even flow," i.e., cutting only as much as grows. To violate even flow is to increase the rate of old growth forest liquidation. "Overcutting," we call it. But even if we do cut on even flow, in due time we will still replace the 200-900-year old growth native forest with tree farms never exceeding 40-100 years of age. Just as we're turning the woods into tree farms, so Oregon is becoming another megalopolis.
If we're really going to "keep Oregon Oregon," new strategies are urgently needed.
Let's draw a line and fight for it. I'd rather the end came quickly than watch it all fade away.