Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Revising Oregon's Planning Goals: an Opportunity?

In the planning world, Oregon is well known for its strict land use measures that have limited the extent of suburban sprawl, particularly on the state’s best farmlands. Whereas other states have seen suburban growth hopscotch across the countryside, Oregon’s cities have long set limits to where growth can extend to. The result has been somewhat denser cities and more open rural areas than would have been expected without such regulations.

These regulations have not been without controversy however. In 2000 and 2004 property rights groups attempted to roll back some of the more arduous restrictions. The most recent attempt, Measure 37 passed in 2004 but was placed on hold pending the outcome of litigation that has now reached the Oregon Supreme Court. Regardless of the outcome, there is a growing public and legislative consensus to re-examine Oregon’s land use regulations, some of which are now more than 30 years old. Along these lines, the [Portland] Oregonian recently concluded a three-part series on the interplay between planning and agriculture, [residential] density and economic impacts. At the same time the Oregon Department of Transportation is in the midst of an update to the state’s transportation plan, Portland Metro and statewide Land Use taskforce will both re-examine long term planning goals beginning this year.

After more than a generation of implementation, altering some of the planning goals to reflect the realities of today and the challenges of tomorrow might not be a bad idea.

These processes could potentially yield downright productive results if today’s political leaders and support staff (planners, engineers, scientists) honestly acknowledge tomorrow’s challenges and properly deal with them. This means focusing on the growing impacts of energy shortages, resource depletion and environmental hazards/climate change and not on how best to accommodate a million new residents or facilitate economic growth.

Like most formal planning efforts, the official plan of action is quite conventionally focused. But signs of sea-change in attitudes are beginning to emerge. As discussed earlier, a statewide office of Sustainable Development now exists. More encouraging is the ODOT’s hesitant acknowledgement of Peak Oil.

Yes, you read that right.

On page I-9 of the Draft OTP (PDF Document) you will find this rather interesting passage.

“In 2003 the United States consumed almost 20 million barrels of oil per day;
transportation used two-thirds of this total. But the world’s supply of oil is
finite and demand is rising worldwide. Although experts disagree about when
world oil production will peak, even the most optimistic forecasts suggest that
it will occur in less than 25 years. Disruptions to the world’s oil supply will
likely lead to increasing fuel prices and create economic disruption

Granted, it is a very cautious interpretation and assessment of the current debate ongoing on the timing and implications of Peak Oil. Still, it is a start.

The rest of the document is rather conventional in its approach to transportation issues facing the state, many of which will be superceded in importance by the growing shortage in liquid fuels. If few high-mileage vehicles hit the market over the next three decades or the Hydrogen Economy fails to materialize, worries about traffic congestion in 2020 will be for naught. On the other hand, a greater push towards rail transportation driven by the relative energy advantages held by trains over trucks could exacerbate rail congestion. The point here is the plan as currently written, fails to connect the dots between energy and the rest of the transportation sector.

Energy availability has yet to even enter the realm of conventional land use planning decisions.

It fails to register on most discussions of residential neighborhood design. (Though the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District in California does consider [energy] from a pollution standpoint.) Read my post on this here.

More importantly, it is absent from any discussion on appropriate agricultural policies. Conventional agriculture—as we well know—is highly dependent on fossil fuel energy. Many producers today are likewise dependent on financial subsidies to produce. The whole system is geared to produce the maximum amount of output at the lowest possible costs by the fewest number of farmers. Many local agricultural protection policies and zoning criterion reflect this. As average farm sizes have marched upward over the past several decades, so has the typical minimum farm size requirement in most county zoning codes. Most farm bureaus will derisively view farming operations of less than 40 acres as unviable or hobby-only. This may well be the case if that operation is conventional in nature. However many highly productive farms engaged in biodynamic principles will occupy far less than 40 acres and still be profitable or at least viable when part of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) arrangement.

As overall energy costs rise and supplies become physically scarce, more farming operations will have to transition from high-capital intensive operations requiring huge parcel sizes to much smaller, human-scaled operations. As a result, agricultural planning criteria ought to be flexible enough to encourage the growth of micro-farming on as little as 5 acre parcels, without encouraging the proliferation of rural ranchettes by non-farming individuals. Whether or not a particular area makes this transition from mega farming to micro farming may well determine how well the urban population will survive.

It remains to be seen how well Oregon as a whole will fare over the next three decades. The good news at least they are listening. But will they understand?


Anonymous OregonCoast said...

Same story here.
I have been trying to educate my community also.
What seems to work the best here is workshops and presentations. We are at the point now where, if a presentation is given, you can count on 100+ people showing up.

BTW where are you on the OC? I would bet you are south of me. (I'm as far north as one can get on the OC)

2/02/2006 11:58 PM  

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