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Taking Charge of Growth: An Action Plan for Oregon Communities

by Eben Fodor

Tired of being a passenger on the growth bandwagon? Get into the drivers seat! This guide is intended for citizens, policy makers and public officials who want to start reining in urban growth in their community. It's a simple, practical guide for communities seeking to take charge of their growth. It offers a balanced strategy based on successful experiences in communities across the country.

All communities are not the same and you will want to work with others to explore a full range of policy options and to determine the best plan for your community. Remember that the goal is to make your community a better place by addressing growth issues and creating a brighter, more-hopeful and promising future.

Is growth draining the life out of your community?

Is growth living up to its promises and providing a stream of net benefits, or is it taking a toll on your community? Check some of the symptoms of growth that is speeding out-of-control.

Symptoms of out-of-control growth:

  • increasing traffic congestion and longer commutes
  • diminishing or lost "sense of community"
  • lack of adequate open space and parkland
  • overcrowded schools and overburdened public facilities
  • increasing taxes and/or declining public services
  • less affordable housing
  • influx of national chain stores replacing locally-owned stores
  • declining air and water quality
  • ugly urban landscape dominated by strip malls and parking lots
  • decline in overall livability/quality of life
  • bleak outlook for the future

Do you have to stand by and watch it happen?

All too often people who are concerned about growth are told "There's nothing you can do about it. Growth is coming whether you like it or not, so let's just figure out how we're going to accommodate it." Such platitudes have derailed many a concerned citizen by making them feel helpless and dis-empowered. The fact is, there are many things you can do to influence the character, quality and quantity of growth in your community.

In Oregon, many cities and counties have fallen back on the mandated requirements of the State Land Use Program. While this is one of the best state programs in the country, it merely covers the basics. It's not enough to effectively manage growth and protect the things you value in your community. Fortunately, as you will see, there are policies you can adopt locally that can make a difference and achieve the kinds of results you want.  The state delegates a great deal of regulatory authority to cities and counties, but the state's Land Use Planning Program guides and limits many growth management policies.

Is it legal?

The 10th Amendment to the US Constitution grants states the police power to regulate themselves. The authority of local government to regulate growth is delegated by the state. This is the same source of authority used by cities and counties to regulate zoning, enact building codes and enforce environmental standards.

Growth controls will almost certainly be challenged in court. So, if they are not properly designed, they will be thrown out (wasting lots of hard work!). In addition to complying with state law, they must not violate the "right to travel," must not be an actual "taking" of property, must not be "exclusionary" (excluding any particular class of persons), and must include findings to the effect that the proposed growth control is needed to protect and promote the health, safety and welfare of the community. These findings are best developed as part of a comprehensive study or planning process.

A good growth policy will also be fair and equitable. The benefits and costs of the policy should be reasonably distributed. As with any good public policy, the benefits should significantly exceed the costs. A proposed regulation that may significantly diminish property values (or create costs) for certain group of landowners should meet certain tests:
1. It should be applied evenly to everyone,
2. it should generate far greater benefits than costs, and
3. it should convey the benefits broadly on the community as a whole (not just to a small group of beneficiaries).

For example, restrictions on riverfront development may reduce the development potential of some properties, but may produce much greater benefits for the entire community through improved water quality, fish and wildlife habitat and protected scenic and recreation values. These benefits will be broadly conveyed on current and future residents of the community, as well as those living downstream. In some cases it may be appropriate for the community to compensate landowners who are severely impacted. In the above example, it might involve purchasing conservation easements along riparian corridors.

Forced Growth Policies?

In the 1990's, Oregon's Legislature enacted several statewide policies that help to ensure cities will continue to grow:

  • 20-Year Land Supply. Each city is required to maintain a 20-year supply of buildable residential land within its Urban Growth Boundary. This policy means the UGB by itself will never represent a significant constraint to the amount of growth that occurs.
  • Limits on Moratoria. Cities are prevented from adopting a moratorium for reasons of inadequate school capacity. A moratorium must be based on other physical limitations and must be temporary.

These policies would appear to prevent Oregon's local governments from acting to stop growth and are sometimes referred to as "forced growth" policies. However, this issue is complex and there are other state policies that also come into play. Where state policies protecting the public health, safety and general welfare conflict with further growth accommodation, the courts will need to decide how to reconcile them.


There are many effective policies you can put to work in your community, but remember that no single policy or regulation does it all. Effectively controlling growth over the long term requires a policy framework. Fortunately, you don't have to do it all at once. Pick your top priority concerns and start there.

This section describes 12 policies that can make a positive difference in your community. While every community is unique and different, these policies are likely to be beneficial in most places.  Each of these policies can be implemented individually and be beneficial by itself.  However, together, they form a framework for addressing growth in a positive, balanced, responsible way. While there are other policies that could have been included here, these were selected as practical and effective policies that are most likely to succeed in the current political environment.

1) Make Growth Pay Its Own Way

One of the best ways to moderate growth is to stop subsidizing it. Surveys around the country show most citizens want growth to pay its own way. Yet most communities are encouraging growth with public tax dollars. The biggest subsidies are usually the free, or low cost, public facilities and infrastructure that local government builds to accommodate new growth. These include new roads, water systems, sewers, storm drainage, parks, new school capacity, libraries, police and fire stations, etcetera.

Development Impact Fees can be used to recover some of these costs. In Oregon they are referred to as Systems Development Charges or SDCs. The State Legislature has only authorized five categories of SDCs that can be collected: roads, water systems, sewers, storm drainage, and parks. This list needs to be expanded to include all categories. At a minimum it should include schools, which are the most expensive category of public facilities associated with growth.

Another big public subsidy that fuels growth is economic development spending. These expenditures often produce little or no public benefit and end up stimulating growth. Get rid of local Enterprise Zones (tax free for 3-5 years), close down Urban Renewal Districts (tax increment financing), and eliminate Strategic Investment Programs (special tax incentives).

By ending growth subsidies and adopting growth neutral fiscal policies, your community can send a clear signal that new growth must pay its own way.

2) Set Growth Threshold Standards

Which important qualities and characteristic of your community are being threatened by growth?  Perhaps the answer is air quality or traffic. Or maybe the list of impacts is broader and includes things like quality-of-life. Whatever the case, it is possible to develop a threshold standard or set of standards that act to protect these qualities.

Growth threshold standards (GTSs) are based on the premise that new growth should not be detrimental to the existing community. This growth should not represent a continual erosion of local amenities, services and quality of life. The GTS essentially states that new growth will be permitted only if it can be accommodated without causing certain negative impacts. (After all, isn't growth supposed to be good for us?)

Growth threshold standards can be used to protect:

  • Environmental quality (air and water)
  • Public amenities (parkland, open space, recreation facilities, scenic qualities, etc.)
  • Quality of community services (transportation, schools, libraries, police and fire protection, etc.)
  • Overall quality of life (as measured by a set of indicators)

Growth threshold standards have potential to protect community health and livability in ways which we are just beginning to explore. Lake Oswego has created threshold standards in the form of quality-of-life indicators. A set of indicators is used to monitor the impact of growth on the community. New growth will not be allowed if it negatively impacts the local quality of life.

A traffic threshold standard might require that a new development be permitted only if nearby streets and intersections could support the added traffic without dropping below a minimum level of service (threshold) established by the city or county. If a proposed development would cause traffic conditions to exceed the threshold, it would not be permitted until the necessary transportation system improvement has been made.

3) Community Impact Analysis

What would be the impact of the proposed industrial park on your community? You don't have to "wait and see," or make "wild-eyed" guesses. Instead we can require that an impact analysis be performed. Many municipalities require traffic impact analyses for major development proposals. It is possible to obtain much more information about how a development will impact the community before it's approved. 

Greater disclosure of growth impacts can be achieved by requiring all major development proposals (and major land use changes) to perform a Community Impact Analysis to determine impacts on population, schools, social services, housing, public facilities, traffic, and local taxes. The effect on the local economy and environment could also be included.

CIA can be use to evaluate how growth affect many aspects of community life, including:

  • traffic impact
  • fiscal (or taxpayer) impact
  • cost-benefit analysis
  • environmental impact
  • population & housing impact
  • schools impact
  • public facilities impact
  • utility rates

4) Land Acquisition, Greenbelts

In Oregon, urban growth boundaries don't provide a great sense of lasting security. They are administrative lines that can be changed at any time. Lacking natural physical barriers (such as steep mountains or the Pacific Ocean), growth will continue to push the boundaries of your community outwards. A more-effective way to limit development is to permanently limit the land available for development. Land can be permanently protected through public acquisition or through a conservation easement. Creating a permanent greenbelt around your small town is one way to help ensure that it stays that way.

A greenbelt or system of greenways and open spaces can have substantial economic, social and environmental benefits for your community. Public open space adds to the value of surrounding properties and increases property tax revenues. Studies from around the country show that protecting land from residential development can save taxpayers money by avoiding all the cost of providing expanded public facilities and services.

5) Proactive Affordable Housing

Any serious effort to slow growth in your community should be accompanied by a proactive affordable housing program. Inclusionary zoning is the most effective tool for assuring that affordable housing is part of the mix of new homes that get built in your community. Unfortunately, under pressure from the land development industry, the State Legislature banned inclusionary zoning in 1999. Communities still have tools at their disposal for helping to provide adequate affordable housing without requiring hefty ongoing subsidies from everyone. These include housing linkages that require new commercial and industrial developments to provide nearby housing that is affordable to the workers. A construction excise tax can be used to create an affordable housing fund.

Note: Many housing programs in Oregon allow publicly-subsidized housing to revert back to the market after 5 or 10 years. The public investment is then lost and citizens will need to fork over more money to fund new housing projects. Make sure that all the affordable housing created with public resources is permanently affordable. Otherwise, affordable housing programs can end up being growth subsidies.

6) Curb Speculative Development

Developers often launch major projects such as housing subdivisions, office buildings or industrial parks based on their guess (or speculation) about what the market will support a year or two in the future when the project is completed. Since there is no way to accurately predict the market, speculative developments often end up being the last thing your community needs. The community is stuck with an unwanted development. The developer is desperate to sell and so are the contractors who want to get paid and the mortgage banker holding the construction loan. This overbuilding contributes to the boom and bust cycles than can be harmful to local families.

Eventually the development industry makes a correction and fewer of that type of development gets built. But it may be too late for your community which now has a glut of wharehouses (or whatever). The best market-based demand signals come from the consumers, not the producers. If consumers want more homes, the builders respond by building more. 

To improve the relationship between local supply and demand, you can require that new development be market-driven, or need-based. Require that development proposals meet a test for market demand, or need, before they are approved. This could be accomplished in a number of ways. One would be to obtain home buyers for half or more of the units, or tenants for half the office space. Another demonstration of need would be to perform a market analysis showing current and projected market demand and supply for the proposed project. If there is no clear evidence of market demand or need, the project is not allowed to go forward.

7) Campaign Finance Reform

As long a money dictates politics, cities will tend to be growth machines. This is due to all the money that can be made through real estate development. The people that people that stand to make big bucks from growth are keen to influence the political system in their favor. While our democratic system gives each of us one vote at the ballot box, big campaign contributions enable some development interests to vote with their checkbooks.

Restoring local democracy is essential to controlling local growth and development. While there are many opportunities to increase the level of democracy in local decision-making (such as increasing opportunities for public involvement, public education/information, etc.), reducing the influence of big money in campaign financing tops the list.

Fortunately the US Supreme Court seems to be moving away from the interpretation that the expenditure of money is protected free speech. The Court's 6-3 ruling in Nixon v. Shrink Missouri PAC (January 24, 2000) allows state and local government to set limits on campaign contributions as long as they are high enough to allow a candidate to collect sufficient funds to be "noticed."

Support state-wide and local efforts to limit campaign contributions to keep big businesses and real estate development interests from dominating your local growth policies.

8) Adopt an indicator & benchmark program

Is your community growing better? Find out by creating "progress" indicators and monitoring them annually. A set of objective indicators can help the public and elected officials monitor local conditions. Indicators can be created to track economic, social, cultural, and environmental conditions as well as government services and politics. They can be selected to reflect local quality of life or to monitor progress towards greater sustainability.

Examples of community indicators:

  • Economy - employment, income, security, business success, poverty rate
  • Environment - air/water quality, emission levels, wildlife, toxin exposure, open space
  • Social/Cultural - public health, child abuse/care, arts, entertainment, teen pregnancy, suicides, charitable giving, discrimination, crime rates
  • Government/Politics - diversity, citizen participation, voters, government services, taxes

Indicators can be created by the local government, an appointed committee, a local organization, a group of volunteers, of by some combination of interested parties. Once indicators have been established, they should be monitored and reported on a regular (usually annual) basis.

Benchmarks are the desired level of each indicator. Benchmarks reflect community goals and help give meaning to changes in the indicators.

9) Make Your Community Walkable

All the latest urban development concepts (neotraditional development, new urbanism, nodal development, eco-villages, etc.) have one thing in common: they all advocate walkable neighborhoods. Walkable neighborhoods offer more transportation choices, foster a sense of community, are friendlier and promote social interaction, enhance public safety, are quieter, and are nicer places to be. They also tend to be compatible with transit and biking.

Not only should neighborhoods be walkable, with adequate sidewalks and safe, convenient paths, but pedestrian links should exist between neighborhoods and centers of business and activity.  Downtowns and retail centers should cater to pedestrians with dedicated pedestrian zones, ample walkways and convenient and safe pedestrian access. We should build walkability into any new developments we are going to add to our communities.

Walkable neighborhoods are not as clearly linked to managing urban growth as some of the other policies suggested here, but they are an important part of fostering greater sustainability by offering low impact transportation options to more people. Requirements for adequate, well-planned pedestrian facilities will tend to temper the raging growth at the urban fringes that is fueled by subsidized automobile usage.  

10) Recognize limits to growth - and include them in the planning process

Planners typically work on processing and accommodating new growth. The plans they develop show how and where this growth will occur. But surveys show that the public thinks the more important issue is how much growth occurs.

Today's planning is based on the assumption that we can keep growing forever. Endless growth is the only plan under active consideration in most communities. Of course it's quite unrealistic to assume we can grow forever. Even if we can grow more in the near-term, do we want to?

Get your planners to start addressing physical and ecological limits to growth and issues of sustainability.  Ask your planners to start addressing the following types of questions:

  • How much growth is desirable? Sustainable?
  • At current growth rates, what will your community look like in an average lifespan (75 years)?
  • What is the ideal size of your community and when will it achieved?
  • What rate of growth is acceptable?
  • Are growth rate caps desirable?
  • Should the concept of ultimate buildout be addressed in the comprehensive plan?

11) Give your land use code some teeth.

The development approval process doesn't have to be a rubber stamping operation. If a development proposal will be harmful to the community or is not needed, you should be able to say "no." Here are some suggestions for strengthening your land use code so that you can legally deny incompatible or inappropriate development:

  • Public Interest Test - Is the proposal consistent with the public interest?
  • Public Need Test - Is there a need for this development or land use change?
  • Public Review Process - Add a public review process for major developments (20,000 ft or larger) and major land use changes (rezonings, annexations, etc.). If the public input raises serious concerns about impacts or compatibility, the planning director should be able to stop the project until they are addressed.

12) Education and Outreach

Surveys show that people generally support stronger growth controls. The more the area is growing, the stronger the support is likely to be. These survey results are impressive considering how little most people know about urban growth. 

The more people know about growth and its impacts, the more likely they are to support local action. Better public information and education about growth are important steps toward changing local growth policies. You can create resources, tools and educational materials that will educate local residents about growth and its impacts. You can help people understand current trends. For example, at current growth rates, what will your community look like in 20 years when your children are grown, in 40 years when their children are grown, or in an average human lifetime of 75 years? Help your community visualize the consequences of doing nothing. Take growth forecasts prepared by local agencies and determine how long it will take for your community to double, triple or quadruple in size. Figure out how big your community will be in 75 years and compare it with concrete examples of ones that are already this big.

Table 1
Doubling Time for Different Annual Growth Rates

If your annual growth rate is: Then your community will double in this many years:
0 percent
population level stays constant
1 percent
70 years
2 percent
35 years
3 percent
23 years
4 percent
18 years
5 percent
14 years
6 percent
12 years
7 percent
10 years

If your community hasn't done any public opinion surveying to determine attitudes about local growth, ask your city council to do so, or consider conducting one through a local organization. Use a professional research firm to obtain statistically valid results. These surveys can accurately guage public interest and can give you the mandate you need to demand change from your city and elected officials.


It may take some time to enact and implement your policy proposals and the development industry may be working overtime to lock in as many developments as possible before your policy takes effect. If you face this problem, or if your community is growing rapidly, you may need to enact a temporary moratorium until the new plan is in place.

Growth Controls in Formative Stage

When it comes to growth control policies, many planners like to act like they have already tried all the possible solutions and have a "been there, done that" attitude. However, growth controls are in their formative stages. They represent a newly evolving and experimental field. We are exploring some uncharted areas and will be vulnerable to making mistakes and being criticized. Be creative and open-minded. Avoid using the traditional rhetoric or "conventional wisdom" about urban growth and don't let the debate get personal. Instead, focus on the issues, the problems, and their solution. Seek out good information and propose responsible actions.

Make your community a model

More and more mobile Americans are escaping overgrown, blighted communities and seeking out unspoiled areas. This just makes the problem worse and certainly isn't the long-term solution. Instead, stay put and work on making your community the kind of place it should be. 

Local governments tend to be copycats. They want to copy what some other community has already successfully done. Be a leader and try to set an example for addressing growth problems that can serve as a model for other communities.

Learning more about how to take charge of urban growth

There are, of course, more policies that can be used to control and limit urban growth than are mentioned here. Below are a few selected reference for additional reading on urban growth issues and how they can be addressed.

Better, Not Bigger? How To Take Control of Urban Growth and Improve Your Community, by Eben Fodor, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada, 1999, 175 pages.  (New Society Publishers, 800-567-6772) A handbook for citizens concerned about local growth issues.

Growth Management for a Sustainable Future: Ecological Sustainability as the New Growth Management Focus for the 21st Century, by Gabor Zovanyi, Praeger Publishers, Westport Connecticut, 1998, 221 pages. An historical overview and critique of current planning practice and its failure to address sustainability.

Growth Management Principles & Practices, by Arthur C. Nelson and James B. Duncan,  Planners Press, American Planners Association, Chicago, Il, 1995. A readable reference for getting acquainted with growth management as it is being practiced today.


Note: Policies suggested in this publication have been used successfully in US communities. However, to assure that your policy proposal meets applicable laws, it is a good idea to consult with a qualified attorney.

Report prepared for Alternatives to Growth Oregon by:
Eben Fodor
Community Planning Consulting
394 East 32nd Avenue
Eugene, OR  97405

May 2000

Governor Kulongoski
Tell Governor Kulongoski to cut growth subsidies, not education or social services!
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Brookings Report Validates AGO!
Toolkit for Growth Activists
Take Charge! See the Toolkit for Growth Activists.