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Pushing the Limits Pushing the Limits

Pushing the Limits

by Zach Dundas
January 6, 2010

In Oregon, radical antisprawl laws aim to save the state's bucolic paradises. But with land-hungry suburbs on the prowl, can these goats be saved?

On a Wednesday morning in harvest season, Lyn Jacobs chases a rebellious goat through the barn. The beast has escaped its pen on Jacob's two-acre farm outside Portland, Oregon, in pursuit of forbidden cabbage. On Wednesdays, about 80 local families drive out to Jacobs's farm, La Finquita del Buho, to pick up their weekly vegetable subscriptions-vegetables piled, at this moment, in mighty heaps in the barn, in immediate peril of unauthorized caprine consumption. But Jacobs is a woman who can defend her cabbage. She drives the renegade goat into a dusty corner, next to the rabbit cages, far from the vegetables, and at her triumphant cry of "Out! Out! Out!" the animal vaults over the threshold.La Finquita, it seems, is just the kind of place where such scenes unfold: a wacky pocket of rustic cuteness, where jumbled gardens, orchards, beyond-free-range chickens, rambunctious dogs, and aloof cats recall kids' storybooks rather than modern agribusiness. As Jacobs steps outside the barn, she plucks a fat apple off a tree and hands it to a visitor. At that moment, Juvencio, her soft-spoken Honduran husband, ambles up the drive, past the Prius slapped with liberal bumper stickers, carrying two big Mason jars full of frothy milk from a neighbor's cows.If La Finquita seems idyllic, it matches its surroundings. Helvetia, Oregon is not so much a town as a hazy-bordered swath of bucolic paradise that looks like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting, a Wendell Berry essay on sustainable agriculture or, at least, a TV commercial for a high-performance sedan. Two-lane country roads twist through lush hills, past browsing cattle and cozy farmsteads. Wheat farms dating back to the Swiss and German pioneers who settled the area in the 1850s stand next to boutique operations like La Finquita that supply heirloom tomatoes and organic kohlrabi to Portland's rapidly expanding ranks of the food-obsessed. The whole place begs to be romanticized.

Until, that is, you walk to the end of the driveway and swivel your gaze 90 degrees. Just beyond the green fields loom boxy strip malls, thickets of town houses, industrial warehouses, and acres of parking. The town of Hillsboro, a Portland suburb, sprawls out just beyond Highway 26, a 10-minute drive from Helvetia. The contrast between the two towns is startling, abrupt, and entirely by design. Nearly 40 years ago, Oregon, facing an onslaught of urban sprawl, adopted the nation's toughest land-use laws. In 1979, greater Portland became the first metropolis in the country to impose an urban-growth boundary, a hard-and-fast line beyond which suburban development is essentially banned.Along with creating dense neighborhoods, encouraging mass-transit use, and irritating free-market zealots, the growth boundary saves farmland close to the city. The resulting proximity between country and town defines life here. Portland is a small-to-medium city with a frequently dismal economy, a single major sports team that hasn't won a championship in 30 years-and world-class access to premium local produce. Ambitious small restaurants crowd the city, bedazzling visiting food critics from New York; some Portlanders follow the local pinot noir harvest the way people in Greenwich, Connecticut, track hedge funds. None of this could exist without the boundary, and neither could farms like La Finquita."We are stunningly aware that we are only a half mile from the line," Jacobs says. "We're able to model what it means to eat locally and eat seasonally for hundreds of people. We couldn't do what we do if we were an hour outside of town."Right now, however, this invisible line also hides a threat to La Finquita's future. Hillsboro, a high-tech manufacturing hub that has more than tripled in size in the last 30 years, imagines a future brightened by hot next-generation enterprises and corporate investment. In pursuit of that dream, Hillsboro would like to absorb Helvetia-pretty much all of it-in the expectation that prosperity will follow.
Hillsboro, a high-tech manufacturing hub that has more than tripled in size in the last 30 years, would like to absorb Helvetia-pretty much all of it-in the expectation that prosperity will follow.
"They say, Well, we need another huge swath of land so we can create another industrial cluster," says Brian Beinlich, another Helvetia farm owner. "But for what industry? No one can tell you that with any specificity at all. It's all just based on someone's fantasy of what might happen in the future."You could call the goal of Oregon's land-use laws "slow sprawl." Growth is allowed, here and there, every once in a while, but at a pace that would seem geological in subdivision nirvanas like Arizona or Florida. That goal is enforced by a bureaucracy so complicated, it's almost heroic: multiple tiers of government; phalanxes of professional urban planners; reams of population projections and transit-corridor-ridership estimates. The results can be measured in any number of ways: The average Portlander drives 20 percent fewer miles than the average American city dweller, for example. Places like Helvetia, however, make the most vivid illustrations of the laws' power.Oregon's slow-sprawl vision evolved from a bygone political convergence that now seems impossible: An iconoclastic liberal Republican governor, Tom McCall, worked with a legislature dominated by working-class Democrats to pass the necessary reforms. Among many requirements, the Portland area's various governments must negotiate every five years on where (and whether) to expand the boundary. The process almost always gets ugly-so fraught with lawsuits, countersuits, political maneuvering, and gatherings of angry townsfolk that by the time one five-year cycle wraps up, it's time to start the next one. So in 2007, Oregon's legislature devised a more far-reaching scheme. Cities, towns, and counties would collaborate to select "urban reserves" and "rural reserves"-designations intended to shape Portland's growth not for five years but for half a century. Urban reserves would be the first land taken into future boundary expansions. Rural reserves would-theoretically, at least-remain farms, wetlands, and forests until at least 2060.

The intent was to create some long-term certainty. Certainty is big for farmers, who often face decisions that can affect their businesses for decades. "You have to choose what structures to build on your land," says Spencer Gates, a Helvetia wheat and grass-seed farmer who can trace his lineage back to frontiersmen who helped found Oregon in the 1840s. "You have to sign long-term leases. Hazelnuts are a major crop here-they take sixteen years from planting until [first] harvest. Our neighbor is a dairy farmer trying to decide whether to install an organic bottling plant. You can't just go and do these things if you think your area's going to become an industrial park in five years."Cities crave certainty, too-as well as expanded tax bases and bigger footprints in a political world where, after all, population rules. In early 2009, Hillsboro unveiled a report on its economic future, forecasting the need to make space for an "agglomeration of industries" to "cluster production inputs." The report, cosponsored by a national association of property developers, predicted that 25 percent of newly urbanized land around Hillsboro would become "corporate headquarters." (The specific corporations remained unnamed.) Another 50 percent of the land would become facilities for such futuristic enterprises as solar-cell manufacturing and biotech. Even though farming pumps nearly $500 million into Hillsboro's county every year, and even though Helvetia's rich soil supports about 200 different crops, the word "agriculture" did not appear.Shortly thereafter, Hillsboro requested that virtually all of Helvetia become an urban reserve. The county government backed up the request, as part of its larger desire to target 34,000 acres of farmland-a third of its tillable land, and some of the finest in the state-for future development.

The land-grabbing suburb makes an almost inevitable villain in this kind of tale, but Hillsboro can make a good case for why it should grow. Around 1970-when Spencer Gates, the wheat farmer, was a kid-Hillsboro was a purely agricultural town with a population of about 15,000. Today, it is the fifth-largest city in the state, with about 90,000 people and sizeable Asian and Hispanic communities. Intel, the silicon-processor giant, built manufacturing and advanced research facilities here in the 1970s, and today employs more than 15,000 people in the area. Other tech, manufacturing, logistics, and research businesses piggyback on Intel's massive presence. Any chance to expand on Hillsboro's successes looks tempting in Oregon, a state currently afflicted with double-digit unemployment.Meanwhile, all that gorgeous Helvetia farmland-much of it flat, all of it close to major highways and other infrastructure-offers prime development opportunities."Anything that seems logical to develop in this part of Oregon is going to eat into prime farmland," says Mike Dahlstrom, an urban planner with the county government. "That's just the way it is. It's all good land. We have a number of different factors to consider. We have to look at the importance of agriculture to the state, which is huge. And we have to look at the state's desire to develop the industries of the future, which is also huge. We have excellent agriculture. We have excellent high-tech and industrial businesses. We are blessed and cursed with the best of both."Places like Helvetia-excellent farmland on the edge of growing cities-are subject to national trends that farm advocates find very gloomy. The nonprofit American Farmland Trust estimates that development swallows 1.1 million acres of American agricultural land per year-about two acres per minute. Historically, soil quality and waterways influenced settlement, so some of the country's best farmland is also the closest to cities. The AFT estimates that "urban fringe" areas supply 91 percent of America's fruits and vegetables.

On the other hand, the recent growth of community-supported agriculture and farmers' markets means that places like Helvetia can take advantage of their urban settings. In October, the United States Department of Agriculture reported a 13-percent increase in the number of farmers' markets in just one year; the USDA estimates that the number of CSA operations nationwide has gone from 60 in 1990 to more than 1,000 today. In Helvetia, the community-supported farms all do brisk business, and some have waiting lists of up to a year. The CSA at Beinlich's farm even supplies vegetables to Intel's cafeterias."The planners and politicians who think Helvetia should be urbanized don't understand operations like ours," Lyn Jacobs says. "And they haven't really tried. I think it's easy enough for them to look at the CSAs and other small farms out here and say, Oh, you guys are just gardeners. They look at us as hobbyists, I think. Well, we are making more per acre here than any wheat farmer."Helvetia boasts many assets: a classic roadhouse tavern that serves microbrew so cold that ice crystals form in the foam; winding scenic roads beloved by cyclists; an old churchyard where tombstones bear inscriptions in German and commemorate pioneers born in the 1820s. What it does not have, as an unincorporated area, is a government of its own. So the job of pushing back against Hillsboro falls not to elected officials, but to people like Lyn Jacobs, the Gateses, and the Beinlichs. A small group of Helvetians erected campaign-style signs along the roadways with slogans like "Save Helvetia" and "Farms not Houses." The coalition cobbled together huge maps of wildlife-migration corridors and exhaustive lists of local historical and cultural resources. One man even inventoried Helvetia's white oak trees, a vulnerable native species that provides nesting habitat for rare birds. (He identified 3,852 individual white oaks-some more than 500 years old.)Did their attempts work? At the moment, no one knows. True to Portland form, establishing the reserves is byzantine work. A recent meeting on the issue included environmentalists, developers, and representatives from counties and towns large and small, as well as nine separate state government departments. The assembly examined individual parcels of land around the edges of the city, one by one. Everyone says they want to curb urban sprawl, theoretically. Portland actually tries, and this is what that effort entails: a methodical slog through soil quality, elevation, and hydrology.
"In the end, we are going to piss off just about everyone. And I have to say that, if that's the result, I think we'll have done more or less the right thing." -Jeff Cogen, county commissioner
The final decision is due in early 2010. While consensus is shaping up on most of the reserves, Helvetia's status remains undetermined. Hillsboro's desire to spread out faces opposition from other parts of the city that would like Helvetia to remain as it is. "Hillsboro does need to expand, but where?" says Jeff Cogen, a county commissioner who represents a liberal Portland district. "We've heard from a lot of people who say, I live inside the boundary, but I get food from a CSA in Helvetia. Or I ride my bike in Helvetia. It's an asset for everyone in the region."Cogen and a few other area officials believe that at least some of Helvetia will remain rural. And he expects that, despite earnest efforts to give everyone a turn with the talking stick, no one will be completely satisfied. "In the end, we are going to piss off just about everyone," he says. "Homebuilders will say we didn't designate enough land for development. Farmers will say we designated too much. Environmentalists will say we designated the wrong land both ways. And I have to say that, if that's the result, I think we'll have done more or less the right thing."

Less than a mile down the road from Finquita del Buho, a white clapboard church founded in 1844 stands across the road from a new brick sign announcing the entrance to "the Westmark Center"-the only visible evidence that the road acts as the edge of the urban growth boundary. Beyond the sign, a dead-end road stretches along past vacant lots punctuated by windowless warehouses. The road terminates at a long row of metal sheds crowded with parked RVs and powerboats, no humans in sight. To the west, a battered Realtor's sign stands at the edge of a scrub field. "Available," it says, "up to 16 acres or build to suit." Since several clones of La Finquita del Buho would fit here, this land could probably feed a couple of thousand people. Or maybe some day-when the economy improves, when someone gets a bright idea in "biotech," when Intel invents a new processor-thousands of people will work here.At its base, the argument for preserving Helvetia as farmland rests on factors difficult to quantify, and calls for a complex judgment on both what kind of land we need right now and what we'll need in uncertain future decades. Oregon's system constitutes the nation's most muscular effort to rein in sprawl-to balance two conflicting but mutually dependent forms of modern civilization. Portland's hinterlands do, indeed, include Chili's and Burger Kings, soccer-mom culs-de-sac and McMansions. At very definite places, however, that all ends. Helvetia is one of those places-and a prime example of the kind of habitat that human beings have sought for millennia."This is not just some of the best farmland in the county, or the state, or the country," says Brian Beinlich. "It's some of the best farmland in the world."Helvetia, in fact, could serve as a national monument to slow sprawl. As long as the place doesn't get bulldozed, of course.Photographs by Jessica Haye and Clark Hsiao.

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