Urban Needs—Rural Government
What do cities have that we don’t?—Part II
by Bruce Bartlett & Virginia Bruce, with help from Marc San Soucie
In this series of articles, we have been taking a look at the governance of Cedar Mill, most of which is unincorporated Washington County. Counties traditionally provide county-wide services and services to rural residents, while cities provide urban amenities and services for their residents.
Growth patterns and other factors in our area have created large urbanized areas, including Cedar Mill, that aren’t part of any city. While service agencies such as Tualatin Valley Water and Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue do a great job of providing basic services, there are a number of ways that cities provide higher levels of service than the county does for its urban unincorporated areas (UUAs).
Last month we discussed representation in government, and urban infrastructure. In this article, we look at some social and economic services provided by cities such as community development, public spaces and the creation of community spirit and activities, land use planning, and code enforcement.
Public Spaces and Community Activities
Cities provide public spaces: town squares, city parks, community centers, community gardens and spaces for Farmers’ Markets. Hillsboro has its own Parks & Recreation Department that includes an Aquatic Center, a Cultural Art Center and a new Civic Center with its public gathering area. Beaverton has constructed a large library building that includes a community center. Beaverton’s very successful Farmers’ Market is held in a public park nearby.
In unincorporated Cedar Mill, the only non-commercial public spaces are parks and a swim center provided by Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District (THPRD) and the Cedar Mill Community Library. The library is largely dependent on volunteers for both funding and operations, and provides Cedar Mill’s only public meeting space outside of the area churches and the Grange.
Cedar Mill has its own wonderful Farmers’ Market, which was started and perpetuated entirely by volunteers until THPRD stepped forward to sponsor it, but it’s held in a shopping center parking lot since there’s no appropriate public space. THPRD also sponsors the Concert in the Park each August in Cedar Mill Park, and the Cider Festival, held for the first time last year at the JQA Young House. Churches provide activities for their parishioners—some of which are open to the community, and scouting and the schools round out the recreation and social opportunities for county residents.
The county isn’t in the business of providing space or programs for the community. They’re even looking for volunteers to maintain the landscaped patches that are added to road projects.
Community Identity and Planning
The Cedar Mill Town Center is being “planned” by the people who own or develop its lots. The county ordinances (536 & 537) that define Cedar Mill Town Center development are close to ten years old and in many cases never took into account the conditions in the community (lack of alternate car and pedestrian routes, for example). Vehicle and pedestrian circulation plans, parking plans, public spaces, the “what should go where” that makes a Town Center work, are determined by developers with suggestions and guidance from county planning staff and only broad guidelines from the Town Center ordinances. Developers may or may not have the best outcome for the community in mind when they make their plans.
Cities are vigorous in guiding urban redevelopment. Hillsboro has been revitalizing its downtown which now includes a civic center and plaza. And despite numerous setbacks, Beaverton is sincerely attempting to create a high-density, full-service urban environment with The Round, the Westgate property, Old Town, and more.
The county has no process or funding to plan for community revitalization, that has never been its business. It’s having to invent a process for planning new urban growth lands—Bethany and Bull Mountain—areas that Metro added despite their distance from cities that could service them.
The Washington County Community Development Code (‘the code’) has evolved from policies established over the years. The code lists the physical attributes of an acceptable proposal for a development application. The county generally does not review land use development proposals for esthetic qualities such as architecture, compatibility with the existing neighborhood, materials, colors or themes; it simply reviews applications for strict code compliance.
As long as a proposal complies with the code, it is usually approved, whether or not it’s a good fit for the community. For example, a car wash was built in the core of our downtown just before the controlling Town Center ordinances took effect. A Town Center is supposed to be a walking environment, and even though the planners knew it was coming, they couldn’t prevent the landowner from doing as he liked with his property.
Beaverton and Hillsboro have specific steps in their design review processes that consider compatibility with the community. In addition, Beaverton and Hillsboro, like the other cities in the county, use appointed citizen planning commissions and design review boards to consider the more complex, ‘Type 3’ land use applications. This brings a strong local, citizen perspective to land use review that the county does not provide. The county refers all of those applications to hearings officers, some of whom don’t even live in the county.
The county’s land use department is self-funding—all expenses for reviewing applications are covered by the permits and fees paid by the developer. This has resulted in a cost-effective process that spares tax payers a burden. But it doesn’t leave money available for broader community planning. This keeps our taxes a bit lower, but it also means that Washington County planners almost never say no to development, as Beaverton did to Wal-Mart at Cedar Hills Blvd and NW Barnes Road.
Cities generally have more detailed and robust community standards and codes (e.g. garbage, vegetation, nuisance) intended to build and protect the quality of life in neighborhoods, and they provide vigorous enforcement of them. The county has only two code enforcement officers for entire UUA, while Beaverton and Hillsboro have entire departments devoted to code enforcement. The county has no tree code to protect specific trees or groves of trees in communities—cities do. The county has no agricultural animal-keeping codes (which can be either good or bad, depending on whether you like having chickens for neighbors) while cities have much more stringent control of animal keeping.
In an effort to create a vibrant economy, most cities provide an expedited review of commercial development applications to avoid costly delays. Washington County’s land use department is “first-come, first-served” and takes more time than city planning departments. But we do pay lower taxes…
Don’t get us wrong. We think the county does a good job considering its long-established policy of limiting general fund expenditures on land use planning. County land use planning staff generally has our best interests at heart and sometimes performs heroic feats of negotiation and persuasion on our behalf (see Murray Undergrounding). But they have to perform their job fairly for all of the diverse and widely separated communities of the UUA. Washington County is simply not in the business of providing all of the amenities of a modern urban community.
Whether we can get the kind of community we need and deserve without a city to guide our development remains to be seen. Alternatives to annexation or incorporation might include a strong private community development association, the village/hamlet concept that’s being explored in Clackamas County (we could learn from their successes and mistakes), even the provision of another urban service district specifically to deal with the issues outlined in these articles.
More of those topics for future articles. Stay tuned!