WHITE PAPER: Plan Big, Zone Small; A Regional Approach to STL’s Future

By on June 10, 2019
Regionalism Drill Down White Paper #9

by David Rusk
Special to ConstructForSTL

Editor’s Note: David Rusk will be returning to St. Louis to speak in front of Construction Forum STL on Wednesday, June 12th. His topic will be “STL Regionalism: What NOW?” Click here for more information and to register for this free event.  

“[T]he Task Force recommends strong centralized regional planning and zoning…. Planning functions should be conducted by a professional department [i.e. of Metro City] that can consider the entire region’s fate, in concert with a comprehensive regional plan, in order to advise Metro City and municipal [district] officials….  The Task Force [also] recognizes that some zoning and adjustment decisions may have an outsized effect on a community at a hyper-local level and lack any potential exclusionary impact. Such decisions should begin consideration and analysis at the municipal level before a more regional and potentially objective lens may be applied by Metro City.

— St. Louis City-County Governance Task Force Report to the Community (January 2019, p. 29)

“[T]he governing body of a Municipal District serves the functions of a planning commission and board of adjustment to the Metro City with respect to zoning ordinances applicable within the Municipal District, in the manner authorized by Metro City ordinance.

— Amendment Summary and Language (January 2019, p. 4)

One can imagine how a unified police department or a unified municipal court could function within the Metro City that Better Together proposed.   

But it’s harder to envision how their proposals for “centralized planning and zoning” at the Metro City level would function in the context of the continuing role of “the governing body of [88] Municipal  District[s] as “planning commission and board of adjustment … with respect to zoning ordinances applicable within the Municipal District….”   

Do the Municipal Districts maintain their planning staff?   Or does Metro City provide all professional planning support to the 88 Municipal Districts? In practice, how would “consideration and analysis [begin] at the municipal level before a more regional and potentially objective lens may be applied by Metro City” really work?

And zoning? Who develops the zoning map and ordinances that are adopted (subject to Metro Council approval) by a Municipal District’s governing body acting as local planning commission?   

What about zoning adjustments and variances that, in the context of a 1.3 million person Metro City are invariably “hyper-local”?   Does the Municipal District maintain its own staff to advise its planning commission/board of zoning adjustment on these often complex decisions or does all professional support come from Metro City?

What about the subdivision and individual building plan check function?   Issuing of construction, electrical, plumbing, permits?   Better Together would assign responsibility for “licensing and regulation” to Metro City (Amendment Summary, p. 3).

The Fake Region

And, of course, looming over this entire issue is that fact that the proposed Metro City would not be considered a “region” by anybody but Better Together (see the first article in this series titled “The Fake Region”).   Metro City’s hypothetical 1.3 million residents would constitute only 47% of the population of the officially defined 15-county, bi-state Metropolitan Statistical Area or 51% of the East-West Gateway Council of Governments jurisdiction, the federally-designated Metropolitan Planning Organization for transportation planning.

St. Louis County and City combined were sites of barely 20% of new housing built in the true region over the past decade and regional shopping malls are closing – not being built – within the same area.

So, the Better Together vision of “strong, centralized regional planning” cannot be meaningful, achieved just by Metro City.

Portland Metro: Regional Planning’s Gold Standard

Both by reputation and performance, Portland Metro achieves the best regional planning in the nation.   Portland Metro’s jurisdiction covers Clackamas, Washington, and Multnomah counties (home to the City of Portland), totaling 1.6 million residents    As such, it does not embrace the entire metropolitan area, which now includes two more largely rural Oregon counties and, across the Columbia River, two Washington counties, including the City of Vancouver.   Thus, in 2017, Portland Metro covered almost three-quarters of the metro area’s population (compared with the proposed Metro City’s 47% of the St. Louis MO-IL metro area) and, more to the point 100% of the Oregon portion of the urbanized area.   So, don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

Direct Election of Metro Council

Portland Metro has evolved as the nation’s only directly-elected, multi-county regional government.   Metro is governed by a Metro Council composed of a president elected Metro-wide and six councilors elected from the six districts into which its jurisdiction is divided. The president delegates day-to-day operational responsibility to a professional chief operating officer.   Voters also elect an independent Metro Auditor to increase accountability.   

The governing body of a predecessor, the Columbia Region Association of Governments (CRAG), was composed of 46 elected officials from member cities and counties (similar to the board of the East-West Gateway Council of Governments).   Naturally, their first allegiance was to their own city or county, which militated against making tough decisions for the benefit of the entire region.   

Each of Metro’s six districts includes several municipalities and unincorporated areas.   Portland itself, the area’s largest city (630,331), is divided up among four of the six districts.   Structurally, parochialism is minimized and regionalism maximized in the Metro Council.

The Evolution of Portland Metro

Metro began life modestly when the Oregon legislature authorized a tri-county Metropolitan Services District (MSD) in 1970; a citizen referendum that same year breathed life into it.   Upon creation it was really only an empty governmental “box” to be filled by whatever duties the legislature or local voters approved for it.   

MSD’s first activity was modest – planning a regional waste disposal system financed by a small tax on used auto tires.   In 1976, with Portland’s agreement and voter approval of an earmarked tax levy, MSD added a second regional function, operating the Washington Park Zoo.

Over the decades the legislature or local citizenry added to MSD’s portfolio management of waste disposal and recycling facilities, Oregon Convention Center, Portland Expo Center, Portland Center for the Performing Arts, and a large Data Resource Center.

In 1979 local voters approved merger of CRAG with its land use and transportation role and MSD with its growing regional services portfolio.   And in 1992 voters approved a local home rule charter, formally re-naming the organization Portland Metro.

By FY 2019 Metro’s budget requirements have grown to $670 million with current expenditures of $429 million.   Its general obligation bonds are rated AAA by Standard & Poor’s.

Of Metro’s 918 employees (FTE) 45% are engaged in “visitor venues” (e.g. convention center), 17% in “property and environmental services” (e.g. recycling plant), 12% in “parks and nature” (covering 17,000 acres), 6% in “planning and development,” 3% in “Research Center,” and the balance in administration and central services.

Regional Planning and Development

As valued as are Metro’s service operations, its 57 staff doing land use and transportation planning are far more important.    Metro develops its region’s comprehensive land use plan and allocates federal, state, and local transportation investments to support it.    Transportation planning is the servant of – not the master of – land use planning.

Most notable is Portland Metro’s famed Urban Growth Boundary (UGB).   Within the UGB there must be sufficient capacity for twenty years of anticipated growth at Metro-determined densities. To facilitate development, local land use plans, zoning regulations and the building permit process must expedite private development.

But outside the UGB, the land is reserved for exclusive farm use, exclusive forest industry use, or for parks and natural areas.  County government must prevent both suburban development and rural sprawl. No water lines, no sewer lines, no wider county roads, no permissive zoning. The UGB draws a sharp line between what is urban and what is rural.

State law confers Metro’s responsibility – and power – to draw and enforce the UGB. In 1973, the legislature passed Senate Bill 100, Oregon’s Statewide Land Use Planning Act.   SB 100 laid the same responsibilities upon every municipality and county throughout the state. For the more complex Portland metro area the state assigned that responsibility to Portland Metro; its first UGB was adopted in 1979 and the UGB is revisited for amendment about every six years.

State law and Metro’s home rule charter provides Metro with substantial regulatory powers over local land use planning.   Two examples:

  • The Housing Rule requires that in all 24 cities and the unincorporated areas of the three counties at least half (50%) of all new residential construction must be townhouses and multi-family apartments. That has resulted in the Portland area having the most affordable housing on the Pacific Coast – expensive yes, but less than every other area.
  • Almost two decades ago Metro issued a rule banning any more Big Box stores on industrially zoned land. One goal was to preserve scarce industrial land for bigger job generators than a Home Depot or Sam’s Club. But, since Big Box stores typically depend on a 20-mile radius for attracting auto-based customers, other goals were to help meet the region’s air quality goals by cutting down on vehicle use and to encourage neighborhood-based, pedestrian-accessible retail.         

A Robust Role for Cities and Counties

Portland Metro’s role is to Plan Big. But local governments zone small; they retain significant planning, zoning and regulatory functions.

To frame the extremes: Portland city government (630,331) has a Bureau of Planning and Sustainability with a budget in FY 2019 of $23 million and 100 employees. It handles all neighborhood-level planning and zoning within the broad policy framework set by Metro.

It is dwarfed by the Bureau of Development Services with a budget of $71 million and 454 employees.   This bureau is responsible for assuring zoning and construction code compliance; conducting commercial and residential inspections; reviewing and approving development plans; regulating site development; issuing plumbing, electrical, mechanical permits – in short, all the nitty-gritty activities essential for safe and orderly urban development.

At the other end of the scale is the City of Rivergrove (481 residents).   Though a completely residential community with a simple zoning code (minimum lot size: one-half acre), Rivergrove still has adopted a comprehensive plan and has a four-member planning commission. It contracts with two for-profit consulting companies for planning and engineering assistance.

The planning, zoning, and regulatory staffing of the other 21 municipalities and three counties fall within these extremes.

Portland Metro v. St. Louis Metro City

Better Together appears to recommend shifting all planning and development services, including licensing and permitting, from the City of St. Louis and the 88 suburban municipalities to its Metro City. Portland Metro, the USA’s state-of-the-art model, does no such thing.

The challenge of St. Louis area is to develop a Portland Metro-style regional planning organization backed by strong state laws to make its plan and implementing regulations stick within its existing multi-county and “little boxes” municipal environment.

Indeed, to achieve that on a bi-state basis (which Oregon and Washington have yet to achieve for Portland Metro) might well make a St. Louis Metro the new model for the nation – or, at least, for the 40 multi-state metro areas.

Previous David Rusk Regionalism Drill Down White Papers in This Series

#1 St Louis City and St Louis County – The Fake Region

#2  The Incredible, Shrinking “Metropolitan City of  St. Louis”

#3 Scenic Overlook: Beware the O’Hara Rule

#4 Better Together’s New Math

#5 Better Together and Indianapolis: Comparing Fruit Salads

#6 Why Are Some Police and Fire Departments “Better”? 

#7 St. Louis County’s Doomed Cities

#8 Was the BT Plan a Recipe for Financial Feast or Famine? 

David Rusk is a former mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico legislator, and federal official who has consulted on regional issues in over 130 metropolitan areas in the USA as well as in Canada, Germany, England, South Africa and The Netherlands

He is author of Cities without Suburbs (4th edition 2012), called “the bible of the regionalism movement,” and three other books.

Mr. Rusk began analyzing the Better Together report for ConstructForSTL as soon as it was issued. In this series of white papers he is drilling down into items ranging from savings from consolidation, to size and ranking of the “statistical city”, economic development, planning and zoning, bond ratings, taxation, political representation, and Metropolitan Council composition.

About Tom Finan