By all accounts, the 16 months it took for the Bend Urban Area Planning Commission to define and approve a new urban growth boundary for the city seemed like a lifetime, but judging by the raucous applause erupting from the more than 50 people sitting in on the October 28 hearing, many local property owners seemed to approve the plan.
Critics however, are questioning whether the proposed boundary map is anything more than a blueprint for sprawl and a giveaway to builders and developers.
The commission voted 5-1 (Commissioner Nathan Hovekamp cast the only "nay" vote and Commissioner Steve Miller did not attend the hearing) in favor of expanding Bend's UGB by 8,943 gross acres. The majority of new growth would occur on land bordering the city's western, northern and eastern edges, with a small portion on Bend's south side.
It's true that there are still some vacant areas within the existing UGB that allow room for limited types of growth, and others that could be re-defined or completed, like abandoned subdivision The Shire and the much-ballyhooed destination resort Tetherow, where resort lot sales have fallen off sharply. And of course one can drive around town and see the occasional half-finished subdivision and vacant office buildings.
In any event, Planning Commission Vice Chair Jodie Barram, who grew up in Central Oregon, said the current UGB proposal is the result of a long, intense public effort, was overdue for updating, and is intended to help decide how our town will handle growth for a generation to come.
"I'm living to see the positive results of decisions that were made here about the urban growth boundary when I was a kid," Barram said. "I think throughout this process everyone involved, from city and county officials to citizen and business interests, is making good decisions, and now (our) kids will get to live out those decisions as they grow up in Bend."
There are, of course, plenty of people who don't want to see the city expand its urban growth boundary at all. Citizen interviews broadcast on local television news programs following Tuesday night's hearing and messages posted over time on The Source's website show that many residents believe that expanding the city limits equates to nothing more than an irresponsible and unnecessary destruction of natural areas. Critics say expanding the UGB is nothing more than a selfish attempt by the city to appease the building and real estate industries, turning Bend into a sprawling city while forcing out family farms, displacing wildlife and snatching up tracts of open space.
Hovekamp said if the city simply keeps grabbing pieces of land to include inside the UGB what's to keep city officials from simply adding more and more parcels of land until the city limits expand out to Redmond, La Pine or even Sisters?
"I'm concerned that in the future we'll just keep bumping out the urban growth boundary," he said. "We need make sure to keep the boundary line reasonably compact. We have to draw the line somewhere."
Landowners with attorneys in tow have voiced their opinion about the commission's choice to add specific tracts of land, including some areas defined on the approved boundary map that have peculiar names, like "Section 11," and "Gopher Gulch," and "The Thumb". Wherever the property, each owner wanted to make sure his or her piece of land would be included inside the new UGB, something that will immediately increase property values and pave the way for future development.
But just where to draw the line depends heavily on which side you happen to be standing. Those on the fringe argue that they should be included because of impacts from future development adjacent or close to their lands. For example, Rick and Judi McCay, residents of Sunriver who said they own land just east of Juniper Ridge at the proposed Cooley Road intersection, said they are happy with the way expansion of the UGB is progressing.
"If our piece of property doesn't get included in this new UGB, development out there could spring up around us and include a lot of traffic, and our property as a ranch would devaluate," Judi said. "We're for the expansion as it looks today."
At meeting's end, the commission ordered staff members to put together a list of the approved additions to the Alternative 4 map. The list included increasing a low-density residential buffer zone from 360 feet to one-quarter mile, transferring much of the 3,000 acres of "surplus land" to the east and south sides of town for residential development, and other recommendations on how specific tracts of land should be zoned.
This is the first official recommendation by the city to expand the UGB since 1981, when only 10,000-or-so people were living in Bend - a different Bend altogether compared to the 75,290 residents (at last count according to signs at the city limits) residing here in 2008. The UGB map, known as Alternative 4, is being redefined now to decide how our town will handle growth during the next 20 years, when more and more people, like it or not, will continue to discover Bend's quality of life and make this area their permanent home. By 2028, the city's population is expected to easily exceed 100,000 year-round residents, according to estimates by Economic Development for Central Oregon and judging by statistics available from the U.S. Census Bureau.
But an expanded UGB is far from a done deal at this point. The current plan now heads back to the Bend City Council for joint hearings in November with the Deschutes County Commission, organized to smooth over all of the finer points recommended in the planning commission's recommendation. For instance, specific zoning requirements outlining how different parcels of new land will be used - residential, commercial or otherwise - are still open for debate and citizen input. Final approval of the UGB ultimately rests with the state, and that won't happen unless the city can include a detailed and reasoned explanation, one the state agrees with, of how every last parcel of incorporated land would meet the development needs of Bend for the next 20 years.
Barram said the city council has indicated it would like to see a finalized plan approved by the end of 2008, and that approval by the state could come during summer 2009, but it is important to convey that between now and then there remains much work to be done.
"We need to require specificity before bringing in any new land," Barram said. "Some findings still need to be polished."
Meanwhile, after the meeting, as commissioners and staffers made their way to the Deschutes Brewery to mark the end of 13 months of work that included 33 meetings, attendees from the meeting continued to cheer and whoop outside in the parking lot.
The public still has plenty of opportunity to weigh in on the proposed UGB expansion, or to simply pay attention in person to the next moves made by the Bend City Council and Deschutes County Commission. Both government bodies will meet three times in November to hammer out the approved UGB - two joint hearings on Nov. 3 and Nov. 17, and a work session on Nov. 24.