In his 1973 address to the Oregon Legislature, Republican Gov. Tom McCall said: The interests of Oregon for today and in the future must be protected from the grasping wastrels of the land. We must respect another truism — that unlimited and unregulated growth, leads inexorably to a lowered quality of life.”

Many Wallowa County residents have probably noticed that the city of Joseph has been growing at a radically fast rate over the past several years. While many might be alarmed at the current rate of growth, it’s only a small sneak preview of what’s on tap for the near future.

The city recently approved the 49-house Mountain Meadows Subdivision. According to city staff, an even larger subdivision is likely to be approved in the near future. These two subdivisions alone will increase the amount of houses by roughly 20% in a relatively short period. Twenty percent is a lot! Such a radical increase in a town’s size in a short period jeopardizes the quality of life for those living in town or those who live near it.

To make matters worse, the city is in the process of adjusting it’s Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) in order to make more land available for future city expansion. The plan calls for swapping Iwetemlaykin State Heritage Site’s 62 acres (currently in the UGB but protected from development), with 62 acres of other property on the city’s periphery that would be slated for development.

On the surface this might seem like a reasonable and somewhat innocuous move. But digging even just a little deeper shows the obvious — that adding more buildable lands to the UGB will further exasperate the problems caused by rapid growth. Those 62 acres would open the door to more than 180 new houses! (That’s in addition to the subdivisions already mentioned.) Worse yet, the UGB swap will result in the eventual loss of important farmlands and open space surrounding town. Do we really want this?

The state of Oregon does NOT mandate that cities replace properties removed from an UGB with an equivalent amount of developable land elsewhere. NOR does it mandate that a city expand its UGB even if its current one is fully built out. So you can have a say in whether the city reclassifies 62 more acres into its UGB. You can also have a say about two other land use issues the city is considering — reclassifying additional land for industrial use and expanding the commercial zone — because the city is under no obligation to do either of those as well.

If you think that expanding the number of houses in town will create affordable housing, think again. The Mountain Meadows Subdivision is not slated to include any.

Likewise, you’d do well not to hold your breath that the new development will will bring down the recently soaring cost of city services. To the contrary, at least some of the costs associated with growing pains from development usually end up being shouldered by all residents.

To its credit, the city recently sent a survey asking residents what they think are the most important issues that the city council should focus on in the next three to five years. At the end of the survey, respondents are thanked for helping “in planning for a stable future for Joseph!” Pretty ironic eh? Radically fast growth is anything but “a stable future.”

There’s much to appreciate about the folks who volunteer their time to serve on city council. It’s likely a thankless position. That said, it doesn’t seem like too much to ask our city councilors to bring some wisdom and thoughtfulness to their considerations issues, especially land use, which arguably has more real impact than any other issue. Instead of taking the easy way out by unquestionable chasing every new opportunity for growth it’d be good for councilors to consider the big picture, as well as the long term implications.

Is this radically rapid growth, or any growth at all, really what residents want? And do residents really want to see the inevitable loss of open space and farmland that will come with UGB expansion?

Putting the breaks on the city’s growth is a conservative choice; it leaves all options on the table for the future. If 20 or 50 or 100 years from now the city decides to expand its UGB, commercial zone and/or industrial zones those options is still available. However, if the current city council decides to expand those zones now it commits future councils and residents to a larger town surrounded by less agricultural land and open space, with no option to go back.

I urge all county residents who care about these issues to express your thoughts, in writing or in person, to the city council. Please consider specifically mentioning a preference that the city not replace Iwetemlaykin’s 62 acres with UGB additions elsewhere.

Likewise, please consider urging the council to play it safe and take a more deliberate approach to the question of whether to expand the amount of lands slated for industrial and commercial use. At the very least, a “time out” on growing the city’s UGB, commercial and industrial lands may be in order. Maybe a ballot measure is warranted as a way to give citizens more of a voice in this matter. In any case, this is a good time to express your thoughts to the Joseph city council on this matter with such consequence.

Will there ever come a time when we’ll say that enough is enough? That we have enough houses and enough jobs that can be sustainable into the future? That we’re not going to stand for the loss of any more agricultural lands or open space?

As Edward Abbey said: Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.

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