Letter: Is Bend ready for 115,000 people?

By Victor Chudowsky /

Next time you are trying to drive across town and waiting at a crowded stoplight, look around and note the number of cars. Now imagine a third more. Isn’t this the traffic you were trying to escape when you moved to Bend? Is this a city you want to live in?

This isn’t a visioning exercise; it’s reality.

Bend has once again embarked on its urban growth boundary planning process. Our current population is around 85,000, and projections are for 115,000 by 2028. That’s a 35 percent increase in population in just 15 years. However, the actual land area of Bend will probably not expand by 35 percent. Oregon land use law, unique in the nation, discourages cities from spreading out in all directions.

The polite and rather bureaucratic term for what will happen is “greater density.” The cynic would call it “crowding.” Whichever term you prefer, Bend is going to grow, and it can grow in a bad way or in a good way. We don’t want Bend to turn into a traffic-bound nightmare. We’d like a well-planned, pleasant city where the neighborhood store, school, workplace or pub is close by. A place where you can still bike or drive across town in 15 minutes. The whole point of UGB planning is to decide what Bend will be like in 15 years. That is why the UGB is the most important thing on the city’s agenda. We have to comfortably accommodate many more people and at the same time maintain our city’s stellar quality of life.

The key word: urbanization.

People who follow matters related to the UGB are focused on the boundaries themselves — the number of acres added and where these acres are going to be. That’s only part of the effort. Most of what changes in Bend will be within its current boundary. Bend will make the transition from being a small town to a real medium-sized city, and it is going to look like a city rather than a suburb. We need to confront this basic fact. That’s a reality of Oregon’s statewide land use planning system, which aims to preserve open space and force cities to use land more efficiently. It stresses “infill” development, meaning that we must show how we plan to use available space within the existing boundary before we can make a case for expansion. We need to rethink everything from transportation planning to the right mix of single- and multi-family housing.

We tried this process before and it did not go well. In 2010, the Oregon Land Conservation and Development Commission rejected much of Bend’s application to expand its land area by about 41 percent. We are now in remand mode, which means we have to analyze and revise parts of the plan. Many years of effort were wasted, and as a result we are in a situation where property values are skyrocketing, partly because of a shortage of land. Housing is becoming less affordable. Land that is suitable for business needs, crucial in a city with high unemployment, is getting scarce.

The Bend City Council has made the UGB a top priority. We’ve assembled a dream team of land use experts — 13 people from eight different companies — who have had many years of experience in UGB planning across Oregon. We’ll be forming citizen-led technical advisory committees on residential and business land needs. We will be keeping Bend citizens informed and seeking their input as to how they want to see the city move forward. It will be a complicated and long process — two years — but it is crucial that we not repeat our past mistakes by doing a rush job. Our aim is to get it right. If all goes well, Bend will be more urban — and better.

— Victor Chudowsky is a Bend city councilor and chair of the UGB Remand Task Force.