Editors Note: This AM, It was my honor as a super local journalist to be at North Plains City Hall to witness a group of 4 locals patiently deliver 340 signatures on a referendum form. For weeks, this group and others, driven by the need to save their town of North Plains, gathered enough signatures to force the City leaders plan to grow the town by twofold. This is amazing, and we need more of this. At this juncture, the good people of North Plains, Oregon, will decide their own fate. I think this is so very powerful, and we need more of this. Why? Because people know what it better for them and what is right. The votes will sort all of this out, and this should be quite a fight for the future of one of Oregon’s greatest small rural towns! Catch my interview with the Friends of North Plains this AM in the attached Video.
Release Date – Monday, October 16, 2023
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Signatures are in for Referendum to Prevent a Rural City’s Sprawl
North Plains, Oregon. Citizens in North Plains will likely see a new choice on this May’s ballot – a choice they haven’t seen since 2016; a choice to have a say in how their city grows. Since 2017 when the state legislature moved the power of annexation from the voters to city councils, decisions on Urban Growth Boundaries (UGBs) have been made in city halls and council rooms. Soon after that decision, the City of North Plains approved a major expansion to its north and this September, the city council voted to pass the 3-county region’s largest expansion outside of Metro ever. But today, the citizen group Friends of North Plains Smart Growth announced that they’ve gathered signatures of 340 North Plains residents – 97 more than needed to refer the measure – who want to refer the Council’s UGB decision to the voters.
Although North Plains has a long history of voting down annexations into its UGB before 2017, a referendum of this sort is the first of its kind in the city and the state. Should the county elections board certify at least 243 of the group’s 340 signatures, the UGB expansion will be referred to the ballot in May and all 2,431 voters in North Plains will have the opportunity to weigh in. Should the residents vote it down, North Plains will be both the first metro area city to have approved such a proportionally huge expansion and the first city to see it overturned by their own voters.
After turning in their signature sheets, organizers said that it had been a whirlwind of a campaign and would never have succeeded without unprecedented support from the community. Without a grocery store, farmers market, or other town center to find voters, Friends of North Plains Smart Growth took its campaign door-to-door and visited almost every house in North Plains.
“We came together because we care about farmland, truly affordable housing, and the mainstreet of North Plains,” said chief petitioner Katie Reding. “None of us are professional organizers and we’re running this in our spare time. But neighbors volunteered to collect signatures from their neighborhoods, folks talked to their friends at the parks, we had whole families meet us to sign the referendum at Jessie Mays [Community Park] – it was truly a community effort to get the expansion on the ballot.”
Friends of North Plains Smart Growth (FNPSG) formed when the city was preparing to approve their UGB expansion. A number of local farmers who would soon be very close neighbors with the city, city residents who wanted their city to keep its rural character, and those worried about the negative environmental and economic impacts of such unplanned and unprecedented growth formed the group and supported the signature gathering effort. “It is a surprising coalition,” said Aaron Nichols, one of the organizers and a local farmer, “but, as I knocked on doors in the city and talked to over 100 people about the expansion, I realized that we all have similar concerns. None of us want to see Hillsboro-style development outside of Metro and on our best farmland in exchange for more, unaffordable housing. Still, given the city council’s dismissal of concerns over losing farmland – I was surprised at how many people listed that same concern as a top concern and reason for signing our referendum. I guess we all need to eat.”
The city of North Plains’ UGB expansion plan envisions the city more than doubling in the next twenty years. To achieve these numbers, the city envisions over 700 acres of industrial development stretching about three miles along highway 26 from Hillsboro toward the coast.
This includes 300 acres abutting the Sunset ridge neighborhood where residents have recently seen the Metro Metals recycling depot approved over their objections to the north in the current UGB, and were promised by the developers that more housing would be coming to the south. It also includes a large parcel to the west of the city pushing to grow away from Metro and towards the coast. Many locals are worried that the lack of highway access on that side of the town and the lack of current infrastructure will lead to massive traffic and quality of life issues, should that area be developed.
The median UGB expansion in the three metro counties for cities outside of Metro is 86.7 acres, about one-tenth of North Plains’ planned growth. With little precedent for such growth, North Plains has not been able to explain what exactly the growth would look like, how much it would cost, or who would pay for it.
The city’s Economic Opportunity Analysis relies heavily on the work of the semiconductor task force last year, which claimed that several 500 acre parcels were needed and should be located in Washington County. After that analysis was published cities came forward with 10,000 acres of land inside their UGBs that had already been zoned industrial and could be used for this purpose. Moreover, no semiconductor facilities have requested federal or state dollars to add land inside or outside a UGB.
The city maintains that this land is necessary for its industrial development, without stating why or for whom. When reached during canvassing, city residents often worried that the city will end up with a similar development pattern to North Hillsboro: a lot of warehouses and data centers but very few jobs and low tax revenues.
So far the city has relied on a loophole allowing the smallest cities in Oregon to expand their UGB first and show how they plan to use the land later. However, the city has released no data of the costs of infrastructure improvements, the costs of additional services, or even where such infrastructure and services will come from.“They’re using exceptions designed for small expansions outside of Metro to grow like they’re inside of Metro – all without justifying why or how they’ll pay for it,” stated FNPGS’s Aaron Nichols. This approach leaves the residents to worry that the costs could end up falling disproportionately on the residents should North Plains follow the local models of development where industries negotiate tax breaks and cities seek to make up the revenue in new housing development and residential tax bases.
In meetings, the city has pointed to an Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) grant that will allow them to start planning this expansion – after the city has approved the size and location of the growth. This seems backwards to many residents and the organizers at FNPSG who feel the city’s reluctance to reach out or even meet the minimum legal standards for noticing its meetings make it hard to accept an “expand first, plan later” strategy that expects the voters to first approve the city’s plan and then trust officials to work out the costs, details, and public engagement later.
“If the city had started out by seeking the citizen’s input and reaching out to the many residents and businesses who would be affected by this unprecedented change, we might be in a different situation now. But by pushing a plan through before most citizens were aware of what was happening, by not reaching out to farmers who will suffer disproportionate hardship with the loss of so much farmland, and by being uninterested when new information about the hazards of this expansion were brought before them, the council approved a unpopular and oversized UGB expansion,” stated Nichols.
The result, it seems, will be a referendum to overturn the entire expansion in May and send the city back to the drawing board.
Contact Information for Information, Quotes, or Photographs
Friends of North Plains Smart Growth
Aaron Nichols, Committee Member