Powers That Be
Planning in Washington County
By Virginia Bruce
When we have to sit in heavy traffic on congested roads, when we are dismayed by new houses crowding into established neighborhoods, when we watch our forested hills and valley farms overtaken by housing developments, it’s tempting to blame the changes on county planners. After all, they are the ones who decide where roads will be built and they sign off on development applications, right?
It’s not that simple. Density in our area is mandated by Metro. Each county in the region is given targets to meet in absorbing housing capacity for new residents, and providing land for industry and businesses. By increasing density within the Urban Growth Boundary, Oregon seeks to contain urban sprawl and preserve farms and open land. A recent survey shows a high level of support for these policies statewide.
Community Plans set the zoning for various areas, requiring higher density near freeways, transit lines, and arterial roads. They also indicate routes for new roads. Those Community Plans were established in 1983 as the state began to implement Oregon’s Land Use laws. They’ve never been amended in any significant way since then, and the zoning—how many dwellings-per-acre, what types of commercial or industrial development can go where—hasn’t changed at all since those days except around the Town Center areas.
As new housing developments are proposed, they are required to meet the requisite density, with some subtractions permitted to allow for natural areas that have to be preserved for wildlife and water quality. Most developers prefer to build as many homes as they are allowed, to maximize profit.
The Community Development Code, a huge, ever-changing document with over one hundred individual “articles,” outlines the requirements and standards applied to development applications. Those standards include requirements laid out by Oregon State statutes and administrative rules, along with ordinances adopted by the Board of Commissioners. Each year, between March and October (Ordinance Season), several new or revised ordinances are brought to the Commission for consideration.
Planning and Development Services
The Planning and Development Services Division (PDS) was created in early 2013, combining two of the county’s Land Use and Transportation (LUT) divisions: Long Range Planning, and Development Services. LUT Communications Coordinator Stephen Roberts explains, “This merger unified the department’s countywide transportation planning and land use planning coordination functions with the community planning, development review, building permitting and inspections (structural, plumbing, electrical and mechanical) and code compliance functions the department provides in urban unincorporated and rural areas of Washington County.” Former Principal Planner Andy Back was appointed to manage the new division.
The LUT staff has 22 employees with the word “planner” in their job title at this time. 21 of them are in the Planning and Development Services (PDS) division.
Current Planning, which deals with development proposals of all types, has seven planners. The budget for CP comes almost entirely from the fees that are charged to developers. During the recession, when very little development was occurring, the staff was cut drastically.
Several of the Associate Planners on the CP staff are listed as Temporary. Roberts explains, “The temps are doing the same type of work the permanent Associate Planners are doing – primarily processing development casefiles. We’ve hired staff on a temp basis because we’ve been staffing up cautiously. The economic/development recovery has been somewhat uneven, so workloads have varied widely over the past couple of years. After having been through the difficult experience of laying off staff and reducing hours, we didn’t want to hire permanent staff only to find we need to reduce staff again.”
The Long Range Planning (LRP) group prepares and maintains the county's planning documents and ordinances, including the Comprehensive Framework Plan for the Urban Area, the Rural/Natural Resource Plan, all Community Plans for urban unincorporated areas, and the countywide Transportation Plan. This is the group that has been working to update the 20-year County Transportation Plan. LRP funding comes from several sources, including the county’s General Fund and grants for work on specific projects (i.e. Aloha-Reedville). The Annual Work Program provides a venue for discussing workload priorities and staffing needs for that section’s work.
Roberts says, “We currently have 13 LRP staff with the word “planner” in their title – they include two Principal Planners (who oversee the Transportation Planning and Community Planning workgroups), as well as Senior Planners, Associate Planners, and Assistant Planners.”
“We’ve had some sharing of staff between LRP and CP in the past, but with the merger that created the PDS division, staffing has become more flexible” Roberts notes. “That was one of the primary reasons for merging the divisions – to be more efficient and effective by sharing staff and other resources and being able to adapt to shifts in workload between the various workgroups more quickly.”
Open to interpretation
So with all these planners, and plans and codes with which to evaluate development proposals, why do we still get outcomes that make some of us unhappy? Local examples include the Shell station expansion on Cornell, that prevented good traffic circulation improvements, and the remodel of the new Walgreen’s building that used standing-wall exceptions to avoid meeting the town center codes.
Planning and Development Services Manager Andy Back provides some insight. “When developments don't turn out the way the public expects, I don't think that the problem is primarily a lack of resources or staffing in Current Planning. Its more a matter of what is specifically in the code or plan, and, to some smaller degree, how it is interpreted. In some places in the code and community plans, there is a lack of specificity. That makes it possible for reasonable people to come up with different interpretations when responding to different particular development applications.”
“The Draft Annual Work Program allocates LUT department resources. It is put together by Long Range Planning, with input from various sources, and then goes to the Board for their approval to release to the public. In the end, the Board adopts a final Work Program, and it's a matter of what the Board wants to pursue.
“Making the code, community plans, and transportation plan more detailed and explicit would have to be part of the Work Program, ” Back explains.
Loose regulations, open to interpretation, provide opportunities for those with short-term interests to shape the region in ways that do not serve the needs of current and future residents for coordinated transportation and development. We encourage the Board of Commissioners to increase their focus on long-term planning by directing resources toward enhancing the Community Development Code and finally updating the Community Plans in meaningful ways.