The Battle of Oak Grove


“People Come and Go. I Plan for the Land.”

Our initial efforts to save Oak Grove from densification were pretty naïve. First, we thought we could persuade the Clackamas County planners that densification was a bad idea. We invited the lead planner to walk the neighborhood with some of us, a walk that ended with a visit in Jeanne Johnson’s home.

Johnson, a schoolteacher, lived with her husband in a beautiful, 1908 craftsman-style home. After walking around the area on a sunny spring day, the planner exclaimed to Johnson, “What a lovely neighborhood. The only other time I’ve ever walked around here was last fall. It was raining, the edges of the streets were muddy, and I couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to live here.” She was from the government and she was here to help us Neotraditionalize our neighborhood.

Johnson’s neighbors, some of whom had lived their entire lives in Oak Grove, then tried to explain why they didn’t like the plan. Some feared higher densities would bring back the crime that once infested the area. Others worried about congestion. After listening, the planner–who had spent no more than a few hours in the area–looked at the Johnsons’ 87-year-old river-rock fireplace and replied, “People come and go, but the land remains. I plan for the land.” In other words, our concerns didn’t matter; she knew what was best.

I gave the planner a paper I had written describing incentive-based tools for reducing congestion and pollution and protecting open space. Later she sent me nice letter thanking me for my “participation,” but saying my ideas “aren’t part of our business-as-usual” and “would take major paradigm shifts to accomplish.”

In a demonstration of how unfamiliar I was with Oregon land-use politics, I decided to call 1000 Friends of Oregon, which had been started by my former OSPIRG supervisor, Henry Richmond. I thought of them as the land-use watchdogs who people went to when the government was trying to impose bad plans on people. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Robert Liberty was director of 1000 Friends at the time and he flat out told me that he supported densification. “I grew up on a 50-by-100 lot,” he said, “and what was good enough for me should be good enough for everyone else.”

Later, I learned that densification was really his brainchild. Oregon’s original land-use rules, written in the 1970s, required every city over 10,000 people to draw an urban-growth boundary. But the rules also required them to review the boundaries every five years so that there would always be enough vacant land to supply 20 years of expected housing demand. Nowhere in the rules was densification contemplated.

That began to change in 1989 when Liberty convinced a number of large foundations to fund a study called Land Use Transportation Air Quality (LUTRAQ). This study claimed to show that the best way to reduce air pollution was to increase urban densities, which would lead people to drive less. In reality, it didn’t show this at all: as USC planning professor Genevieve Giuliano’s analysis of LUTRAQ showed, “land use policies appear to have little impact on travel outcomes.” Instead, most of LUTRAQ’s reduction in driving came from an assumption that all parking in the Portland area would impose charges at least one-third as high as the cost of parking in downtown Portland–something that Metro never tried to impose on the region.

This was totally ignored by 1000 Friends, which by this time was the most powerful group in the state of Oregon. It had its fingers in all sorts of other groups, its board included many powerful political and business leaders, and it received funding from, among others, the Environmental Protection Agency’s program aimed at reducing driving and therefore reducing air pollution.

When LUTRAQ was published, planners listened to what 1000 Friends said that it found, not what it really found. When Portland homebuilders sued Metro to make sure that it would add more land to Portland’s urban-growth boundary to meet housing demands, Metro went to the state legislature and got the law revised to allow it to meet housing needs through densification instead. That meant rezoning neighborhoods like Oak Grove to higher densities.

Since then, densification has become the primary goal of Portland planners. In 1996, Metro adopted a plan that set a target of reducing the share of Portland-area households who lived in single-family homes from 65 percent (which it was in 1990) to 41 percent by 2040. (As of 2018, it is down to 58 percent.)

The Oak Grove Plan

As the outlines of the county’s plan became clear, I was struck with what was missing from it. First, there were no data. Any requests for populations or numbers of homes were met with, “we haven’t got our geographic information system working yet.” They didn’t get it working until the plan was almost done. Second, there were no alternatives. Except for a few maps (“60s suburban,” “pure neotraditional,” and “Metro 2040”) that were apparently dismissed after the first planning meeting, this plan considered none. Finally, there was no analysis of impacts, just pretty pictures showing tree-lined streets.

A week after our neighborhood meeting, planners had scheduled a public meeting at the local school gymnasium so that they could present their plan to the community. To let people know about the meeting, planners distributed another innocuous flyer that talked about bikeways, “public space,” and “common sense zoning,” whatever that is.

In response, I wrote a counterflyer that emphasized high density, multifamily dwellings, mixed use, and prescriptive zoning. We used our photocopier to print up a thousand copies that my neighbors and I distributed to people’s homes.

Obviously expecting a small turnout, planners had set out around 100 chairs in the gym. In fact, nearly 200 angry residents showed up. Planners took an informal poll that showed that fewer than 20 people attended in response to the planners’ leaflet, while at least half came as a result of our flyer.

Planners were ready with a program that devoted an hour-and-a-half to boring presentations about bike paths and pedestrian ways before saying anything about zoning. The presentations were made by the “neighbors” on the planning committee–one of whom was an absentee business owner–thus deflecting people’s anger from the planners to the committee.

At the end of the presentations, planners refused to allow any member of the public to comment and provided only 15 minutes for questions and answers. But it was clear that people opposed the plan, and the meeting was punctuated by frequent outbursts such as “go home” and “who asked you, anyway?”

Earlier in the planning process, one of the planners had lamented that “It is too bad that Oak Grove doesn’t have a community identity because it isn’t incorporated.” At the end of this meeting, she announced, “Well, if nothing else, at least we’ve helped you get a community identity.”

After the meeting, planners decided that they “made a mistake in not allowing more people to talk, and in not letting people make more comments.” So they held another meeting three weeks later. My neighbors and I leafleted again and 150 people attended. Two hours of questions and acrimonious debate made it clear that community members at the meetings were almost unanimously opposed to the plan. Some people liked the idea of revitalizing downtown, but no one wanted increased density, more multi-family zones, granny flats, or design codes.

The local residents and absentee business owners who had been on the public involvement committee that had supported the plan quickly backed off. Several of them publicly said that they were duped by the planners and that they would never have agreed to the plan if they had understood its true implications.

Planners could see they weren’t getting anywhere, and promised that they would drop the plan if that is what the community wanted. “But if you don’t let us pass this plan now,” warned one, “Metro will make us impose even more densification on you later.”

Why Oak Grove?

Since planners were threatening Oak Grove residents with the Metro “bogeyman,” people began to wonder why Metro had picked Oak Grove to be a town center in the first place. Metro’s council made that decision the previous December, but a September draft plan did not include Oak Grove among the town centers.

County planners said that the town center designation came “at the request of North Clackamas business leaders.” But Oak Grove businesspeople anxiously assured residents that they had nothing to do with it.

It turned out that the requests came from the sewer, water, and fire districts. The heads of these districts apparently believed town center designation would make them eligible for more federal or other funds. “Funds and resources would be channeled into these centers,” the fire chief told his district board of directors. Town centers “will be focal points for development and funds” said the water board. The boards for all three districts petitioned Metro to add Oak Grove to the list of town centers.

I reviewed Metro documents and interviewed Metro staff, but could find no evidence that town centers would be special recipients of any funds. “There might be some transportation funds to make the areas more pedestrian friendly,” Metro staffer Mark Turpel told me, “but that’s all.”

Curiously, the fire chief opposed Neotraditional designs. “My fire trucks sometimes have to get into people’s backyards,” he told me. “That’s why we need at least five feet of setbacks along property lines” (which would mean at least ten feet between buildings). When I told him that the town center zoning codes would forbid such setbacks, he was surprised but didn’t think such buildings would ever be constructed. (Since then, housing with such close setbacks have been built in the immediate vicinity of downtown Oak Grove.)

A memo I found written by the fire chief revealed something else. “Metro planning staff, specifically John Fregonese [Metro’s growth management director], agrees” that Oak Grove should be a town center. “He stated that it was designated but the county planning staff removed it.” Later, county planners told me that they remembered that, during preparation of the 1980 plan for Oak Grove, residents had fought long and hard against any zoning denser than four units per acre.

“We Aren’t Even Going to Read this Plan”

Jeanne Johnson and her neighbors decided that they had to try to convince Metro to undesignate Oak Grove as a town center. A few weeks after the public hearing, the planning committee met with two of Clackamas County’s three county commissioners.

By this time, the strong responses at the public meetings had completely transformed the situation. Most of the original committee members distanced themselves from the plan, saying they were duped. A poll of committee members who actually lived in the neighborhood revealed them to be 100 percent opposed to the plan that they had previously acquiesced to. In fact, it was almost impossible to find anyone who actually admitted to being on the land-use committee that dealt with densification–everybody claimed to have been “someplace else.”

The day before the meeting with the county commissioners, the head of the sewer district, Kent Squires, had lunch with the commission chair, Judie Hammerstad. Squires told her that people were just confused about the term “town center” because the area’s largest shopping center was called “Clackamas Town Center.”

Although no one leafleted for the meeting, it had a fairly large turnout. Hammerstad spent several minutes trying to explain that a “town center” was not the same as a large shopping mall. Finally, someone said, “No one is confused about what a town center is. We just don’t want more apartments, mixed-uses, and higher densities–and that’s what Metro’s town centers are all about.”

After listening to comments from many more people–some of whom said they had felt misled by planners–Hammerstad held up the 120-page Oak Grove plan and said that “the commission will probably not approve this plan.” “Does that mean that you might approve this plan?” someone asked.

“We aren’t even going to read this plan,” she said, and slammed it down on the table.

After the meeting, one of the planners approached me and said she had talked with some friends who worked for the Mt. Hood National Forest, and she wanted to know if I was the same Randal O’Toole who brought down so many Forest Service plans, and if I was now going to focus on urban plans. I didn’t answer, but that is exactly what happened.

On July 24, 1995, Clackamas County Commission Chair Judie Hammerstad sent a letter to Metro requesting that Oak Grove not be designated a town center. “There is no community support for a `town center,’ ” she wrote. She added that “we found in our planning that parcelization patterns, transportation systems, market forces, and underlying geology make it difficult to make a town center work,” but these were just rationalizations for Metro’s sake–the real reason was neighborhood opposition.

Planners held a final meeting with residents a few days later. The planning team leader somewhat wistfully stated that “Metro staff told me that a public hearing would get people upset. They said I should just hold open houses, like they do.” But, she said, she didn’t believe that open houses gave the public a fair chance to comment on a plan.

A few months later, Metro sent out a newsletter with the latest map of its 2040 plan. Oak Grove was not listed as a town center. Except for the corridor around the “superhighway,” Oak Grove is just an “inner neighborhood.”

Oak Grove was one of 36 neighborhoods that Metro had designated a town center. The residents of many of the other neighborhoods engaged in long and bitter battles against densification, but all of them lost. Oak Grove was the only neighborhood that succeeded in having the town center designation reversed.

The 2040 plan still called for inner neighborhoods to increase their density to an average of 12 people per acre–about 50 percent more than Oak Grove’s current density. “Infill” of vacant sites will probably satisfy Metro’s requirements–especially since county planners aren’t likely to try changing zoning codes in Oak Grove anytime soon.

The first 500 feet of the large block bounded by Oak Grove Boulevard on the north and Rupert and Arista on the east and west now has a strange development of large homes crowded on tiny lots. Yet this is entirely unnecessary as there are many large vacant parcels on this block and even larger ones on nearby blocks.

Oak Grove hasn’t changed much in the 24 years since these events took place. Portland built a light-rail line to the edge of Oak Grove, and that has led to tax-subsidized densification of Milwaukie, the city between Portland and Oak Grove, but it hasn’t had much of an impact on Oak Grove. A few homes were built on tiny lots just south of downtown Oak Grove, yet there are still vacant parcels of land within a block of downtown that are more than an acre in size.

Perhaps the biggest change is that the Oak Grove Elementary School I remember has been turned into a high school and renamed New Urban High School. Except for that name, you would be hard pressed to find any signs of New Urbanism in the community.

This piece first appeared on the Antiplanner.

Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute specializing in land use and transportation policy. He has written several books demonstrating the futility of government planning. Prior to working for Cato, he taught environmental economics at Yale, UC Berkeley, and Utah State University.