Farms, forests and watersheds, or factories? Oregon can have them all

This op-ed was originally published by the Capital Press on April 17, 2023.

By Nellie McAdams and Sam Diaz

On April 13, Gov. Tina Kotek signed into law Senate Bill 4. SB 4 makes $210 million of state money available to assist one of Oregon’s major industries: semiconductors (commonly referred to as microchips). The majority of the $210 million helps semiconductor companies compete for federal funding made available by the CHIPS and Science Act. Some of the $210 million supports higher education institutions, workforce development and site readiness for semiconductor expansions.

Oregon should be proud of the coordinated action to support one of our economic pillars. Our state is poised for success, with the Governor’s Office reporting at least eight applications already in motion — on land already designated for industrial use — to bring federal funding and more high quality jobs to our state.

However, SB 4 includes a potential trap that Oregon must be vigilant in avoiding if we are to declare success. The trap lies in the unprecedented authority given to the governor regarding land. SB 4 allows the governor to bypass local government planning processes to bring two sites larger than 500 acres and up to 6 sites smaller than 500 acres into an urban growth boundary (UGB).

There is some small comfort in knowing that the governor’s authority is narrowly tailored. First, the governor must determine that Oregon has no available land for possible semiconductor expansion. Only then may the governor consider bringing land inside a UGB if there is a viable application for funding through the CHIPS Act that credibly demonstrates a need for land. The authority expires Dec. 31, 2024, and land brought inside a UGB under this law would be removed from the UGB if federal funding is not awarded for the project that required the land.

This authority remains concerning, but recent data shows that it is unnecessary for the governor to use it. A March 2023 survey administered by the Oregon Business Council, Oregon Economic Development Association, and the League of Oregon Cities discovered nearly 10,000 acres of industrial land in cities and towns across the state. And, thanks to testimony provided by local officials and private property owners, we know of multiple sites of at least 500 acres inside UGBs like those in Redmond, the Rogue Valley, Hillsboro and Wilsonville. The main issue isn’t the supply of raw industrial land; we have plenty of it. Our primary issues center upon the capital required to ready these lands for industrial development and the lack of a statewide industrial lands database. Bringing land inside an UGB doesn’t address either of these primary issues.

This data demonstrates just one of the tangible benefits Oregonians enjoy because of our land use planning program. The program enables cities and towns to work with Oregonians to identify lands for industrial uses, in addition to other important needs like housing, public facilities, and transportation options. And, the program enables counties to work with Oregonians to protect the jobs and environmental benefits offered from our farms, forests and watersheds. The UGB, a guidepost for growth inside our cities and towns, brings focus, strategies and certainty to make the vision of Oregonians a possibility.

Unfortunately, Oregon’s lands near UGBs are under constant threat of sprawl development: strip malls, data centers, subdivisions of homes often priced out of reach for the majority of Oregonians. When a UGB is expanded, farms and forests are almost always lost. Ironically, the best quality soil is usually the most at risk — some of the largest blocks of Class I soils are already paved underneath cities like Portland and Eugene.

As Oregon focuses on one industry (semiconductors), we must also protect our other economic pillars like agriculture, forestry and a tourism model that depends on access to the outdoors and delicious food and beverages grown and raised by Oregon farmers and ranchers. Any steps we take to support the tech industry must not (and do not need to) foreclose our efforts to create a diversified economy of the future — an economy that also supports rural livelihoods, safeguards our supply of food and fiber and stewards our natural resources like soil and water.

For a more prosperous, resilient, and inclusive future for Oregon, we urge the governor and the semiconductor industry to continue to look inward for semiconductor expansions.