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County work group to focus on housing shortage

Cities in Umatilla County are looking for ways to encourage more residential development.
Jade McDowell

East Oregonian

Published on May 11, 2017 12:01AM

Last changed on May 11, 2017 10:01PM

Cities in Umatilla County have been spearheading individual efforts to tackle their housing shortages, but county planning director Tamra Mabbott hopes to bring all those heads together to promote housing development county-wide.

Mabbott is forming a work group to find solutions to the county’s housing crunch. To guide their efforts, her department put together an inventory of residential lands in both the unincorporated parts of the county and inside each of its 13 cities. Residential lands on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation were not included.

Mabbott said the next step would be a deeper analysis of those parcels, looking for barriers such as lack of infrastructure or regulatory roadblocks. That information could help build an inventory of “shovel-ready” residential lands in the county and highlight trends for the work group to focus on.

The land inventory shows Hermiston and Pendleton virtually tied at 5,510 and 5,509 residential parcels, respectively. Only 522 of Pendleton’s parcels remain undeveloped compared to 915 of Hermiston’s.

Numbers only tell a piece of the story, however. Not all land is created equal, as Pendleton community development director Tim Simons well knows. Many of Pendleton’s remaining residential lots are on a steep grade with bedrock just below the surface. Modern engineering makes building homes on those plots possible, but not necessarily cost effective.

“You can build on it, it’s just going to cost you a pretty penny,” Simons said.

He said that bare land also tends to cost more to begin with because sellers place a premium on the fact that the property has a “view.”

If developers are looking for flatter, sandier land in the Pendleton area, they will mostly find it outside of Pendleton’s urban growth boundary, which means it is also outside of the reach of city water and sewer and other services. The state won’t let Pendleton extend its tightly drawn urban growth boundary, however, until it infills more of its residential parcels inside the boundary — parcels developers see as too expensive.

“It’s frustrating for us, and frustrating for the community,” Simons said. “We’re between a rock and a hard place.”

Hermiston’s residential lands tend to be easier to build on, at least from a physics standpoint. The city is flatter and doesn’t have as much bedrock to contend with.

“We have nice, sloping hills,” city planning director Clint Spencer said.

Hermiston is still facing a housing crunch of its own, however, thanks to booming growth that has outpaced development of new housing. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows more than half of Hermiston’s workers commute to their jobs from outside the city.

Spencer said the price of bare land in Hermiston has been driven upward due to demand, making it more difficult for developers to create projects that pencil out financially.

“Bare land cost is entirely a market-based issue,” he said. “There is nothing we can do to impact the selling price.”

What the city can do, however, is make sure its own codes aren’t driving costs even higher. The planning department is just beginning a project to adjust city codes to reduce setbacks and other regulations that are discouraging residential development.

Housing shortages aren’t just a problem for Umatilla County’s larger cities. The county’s land inventory shows Ukiah has 43 undeveloped residential parcels, but city recorder Donna Neumann said only two of them are for sale.

“We don’t have enough housing,” she said. “We have some folks who want to move up here and can’t find a lot.”

She said the city doesn’t have the money to give financial incentives, and doesn’t own property it could offer for residential development. If Umatilla County is looking to help cities find solutions to their housing shortages, she said, it’s possible Ukiah could benefit.

On the county level, 407 of the 570 undeveloped residential parcels in the unincorporated parts of the county lie around the Hermiston/Umatilla/Stanfield area. Mabbott said some of that is prime farmland, however, and it would not necessarily serve the county well to try to encourage growers to turn those fields into a housing development.

She said it makes more sense for the county to focus on helping cities encourage residential development in their urban growth boundaries than to spend a lot of resources trying to increase housing development in the unincorporated areas.

“Each piece requires a well and a septic system and a road, and that’s not cost effective,” she said. “It’s available, and it’s an option, but it’s probably not the best place for us to focus our resources.”

Possible next steps for the work group Mabbott is putting together includes helping cities to update their Goal 10 Housing Chapter in their comprehensive plans, hosting a work session with Oregon Housing and Community Services staff, developing a list of “shovel ready” residential lands, identifying barriers and costs for new roads or traffic signals needed to support new residential development, analyzing the condition of current housing stock, conducting and audit of zoning codes and holding a recruiting event for housing developers.


Contact Jade McDowell at jmcdowell@eastoregonian.com or 541-564-4536.


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