Our Opinion: Natural areas need voters' support, yes on Measure 26-203
Looking at the organizational chart of Metro, Oregon's unique regional government, we're reminded of the maxim that a camel is a horse designed by committee.
Metro is a gangly bureaucracy with an odd assortment of missions (some of which it inherited during the past 50 years) including managing our trash, the Oregon Zoo, three boat ramps and 14 historic cemeteries — none of which naturally lend themselves to any sort of bureaucratic synergy. And, contrary to what many Oregonians think, Metro does not run the trains and buses (that's TriMet).
However, a significant part of Metro's mandate is to provide regional land-use planning. During the past 24 years, Metro has raised nearly $500 million in a series of four voter-approved bond measures and levies to buy, preserve and enhance undeveloped land and support local parks providers.
The open space program makes a lot of sense. Since 1995, the regional government has been able to protect more than 13,000 acres of land (making purchases from willing sellers) to meet its goals of preserving wildlife habitat and the regional watershed while allowing for future development of recreational destinations.
Measure 26-203 would authorize a new round of general obligation bonds to raise $475 million to continue that initiative.
The bond costs are estimated at 19 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value annually (not real market value). That means the owner of a home assessed at $250,000 will pay $47.50 per year.
Although this is a new tax, it effectively extends the 25-year bond passed in 1995, so taxpayers would not see a change in the rate applied to their property tax bills.
We're recommending a "yes" vote, but with some reservations.
Our concern is that in trying to please everyone, Metro has overreached with this measure. The $475 million is designated for six broad program areas:
• $155 million to protect and restore land.
• $98 million to take care of existing Metro parks.
• $92 million to support local projects.
• $50 million to advance "large-scale community visions."
• $40 million in Nature in the Neighborhood grants.
•$40 million to create trails for walking and biking.
That list explains why the measure enjoys wide support, from business and environmental groups as well as local elected officials.
With one exception, Metro decided not to earmark the money for specific projects in advance of the bond measure. Metro officials want to avoid making promises (like the proposed elephant sanctuary that was abandoned in 2016) that may not come about, given the need to work with willing sellers.? Instead, they have a list of two dozen possible projects, without? timetables or budgets.
The exception is a promise to spend $20 million from the new large-scale category for the Metro-backed Willamette Falls project in Oregon City, which we support.
Other projects that are listed for potential funding include: upgrading facilities at Blue Lake Regional Park; improving access to Chehalem Ridge, south of Forest Grove; restoring habitat in Cooper Mountain Nature Park outside of Beaverton; and enhancing connections between Portland's Forest Park and surrounding natural areas.
They all seem like worthy projects, but many taxpayers (and members of this editorial board)? were under the impression that some of the past money would be spent on developing destination recreation sites.
We're not talking Six Flags over Tigard, but some hiking trails, a gravel parking lot and a bathroom would be nice.? We were told those amenities will come this time.? And, indeed, bond backers, for the first time, designated a chunk of the money for trails.
It's tempting to tell Metro to come back with more details. After, all, there is still some unspent money from past bonds.
But we think the time is right. Here's why:
First, climate change is real. And while Metro is not an environmental agency per se, the land that has been purchased and maintained with previous bond money is helping to lower stream temperatures and protect carbon-sucking vegetation.
Metro has proven to be a good steward with past bond funds, publishing an annual report on the spending and authorizing an auditor and oversight committee to keep tabs on the work. There have been no accounts of cost overruns, questionable purchases or political favoritism in the choices made.
Still, those crafting this bond proposal sought input from communities of color, tribal representatives and others who felt like they had no voice in past natural space measures.? That is commendable, if a bit overdue.
Finally, while the influx of newcomers is slowing, they are still coming. The population of the greater Portland metro area, which was 1.5 million when the 1990 bond was passed, is expected to double when the proposed bonding would expire in 2035.
As density increases, it's even more important to protect and enhance our regional greenspaces, invest in urban and suburban parks, and coordinate those efforts with the push to create more affordable housing.
Supporting Measure 26-203 is one way we can think globally and act locally, helping our planet while protecting the quality of life that many urban communities lost decades ago.
More immediately, it will provide access to property that's already been land-banked — and give metro-area residents the opportunity to experience the wonders of Oregon very close to home.
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