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December 17th, 2010 NIGEL JAQUISS | Multnomah County
 

With Friends Like These…

A property brawl pits Betsy Johnson

IMAGE: Maryanna Hoggatt

A site controlled by one of Portland’s largest property owners is the source of a fight between a powerful state senator and one of her longtime political allies.

Over the past two decades, Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) has deployed considerable financial and political capital to keep a 354-acre parcel of farmland about 19 miles west of Portland from becoming a gravel mine.

Her opposition was instrumental in Glacier Northwest’s 2009 sale of the Columbia County property to Joe Weston, Portland’s largest residential property owner.

Now, Johnson wants Scappoose to bring the parcel inside the town’s urban growth boundary. That change could provide owners a windfall because it would allow the land, currently zoned “exclusive farm use,” to be developed for industrial use.

Johnson testified in favor of the UGB expansion at a Dec. 6 Scappoose City Council hearing, just three days after the plan drew opposition from the land-use group 1000 Friends of Oregon.

The irony is twofold for Johnson, whose power stems from her membership on the Legislature’s budget-writing Ways and Means Committee and her control of a $10 million foundation that doles out gifts to nonprofits across her district.

Johnson was 1000 Friends’ first paying member in 1974. More recently, she and 1000 Friends united to back landmark 2009 legislation protecting the Metolius River, a Central Oregon spot on which Johnson owns a home.

But on Dec. 3, 1000 Friends savaged the Scappoose UGB expansion Johnson supports.

“The proposed [economic opportunity analysis] contains numerous foundational errors and oversights, and would be an inaccurate basis for planning,” wrote 1000 Friends’ Mia Nelson. “The EOA is inconsistent with statewide planning goals and administrative rules and is not defensible as written.”

Supporters of any growth boundary expansion must demonstrate an economic need for developable land. In Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties, Metro reviews the UGB every 10 years and prepares its own analysis of need. In smaller cities, such as Scappoose, the process is different. Rob Hallyburton of the Oregon Land Conservation and Development Commission says landowners, rather than the government, often prepare the rationale for UGB expansion in those cases.

The owners of the acreage that compose most of the land proposed for expansion—Weston and Ed Freeman—commissioned a $500,000 study of their property’s potential.

Nelson, of 1000 Friends, faulted virtually every aspect of that report.

She says the analysis grossly overestimates future employment growth in Scappoose, projecting it will grow six times as fast as the rest of the region annually for the next two decades. And she says the report also understates the amount of developable land in neighboring cities.

“There are many unrelated errors in the land-need calculations that combine to improperly increase the land need,” Nelson writes.

Although some local businesses support the expansion, dozens of residents oppose it. “In many cases, the property becomes 10 times more valuable the day the expansion ordinance becomes law,” wrote one of those opponents, former Scappoose planning commissioner Lisa Smith.

After Glacier Northwest’s sale of the underlying property to Weston and Freeman, the new owners engaged in a long dalliance with the City of Portland, which was interested in building a $120 million police training facility on the site.

That Portland-focused project lost its biggest sponsor when Mayor Tom Potter left office in 2009. Since then, Weston has been seeking an alternative use for the land located just east of Scappoose Airport.

The Scappoose Planning Commission green-lighted his plans in October. The City Council has held one hearing on the proposal and will hold at least one more, on Jan. 3, at the Scappoose High School gym.

Johnson was unavailable for comment. Freeman says 1000 Friends is merely taking a “shotgun” approach. He adds Johnson, who has no financial stake in the project, supports UGB expansion for sound economic development reasons: “She and a multitude of others think this is a better use than a rock mine.


FACT: If the Scappoose City Council approves the UGB expansion, it must also get approval at the county and state level.
 
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