100,000 Views of Oregon
Three alumni and a group of savvy MBA students are reorienting the discussion about state land management and how the public takes part in it.
It’s easy to forget how vast Oregon really is.
There are almost 100,000 square miles of land inside the state’s borders, making it the ninth-largest in the union, right behind Colorado, in terms of outright acreage. And what a captivating patch of earth it is: Oregon is home to hundreds of miles of sandy coastlines, rivers large and small, high-desert and sunburned ridges, farmland, glittery cityscapes and quiet towns, forests and honestto-goodness mountains. These geological systems comprise a complex whole; add in about four million people and it’s easy to recognize what a challenge it is to keep track of everything.
For the last few decades, one smallish state agency has been charged with helping. The Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development (DLCD), established in 1973, provides cities and counties with a framework for deciding how their landscape should be allocated and stewarded. As a result, every inch of the state is covered by a detailed usage plan.
These plans have produced Portland’s well-known urban growth boundaries, facilitated increases in coastal tourism while keeping the beach intact, and ensured that rich areas of ranchland in the central and eastern parts of the state will still be available for ranching years from now. The protections haven’t come without opposition, as their existence was predicated on a new government organization, statewide oversight (which many Oregonians, the original Western individualists, don’t always take lightly) and public money. But since the DLCD came to life under Governor Tom McCall, it has withstood many tests, and no other state in the U.S. has developed its land-use approach as fully.
The department today faces two compounding challenges, however: the need for systems modernization and a seemingly inescapable dearth of funding with which to make it happen. Fortunately, three Willamette alumni who work with the department have put together a timely partnership with Atkinson Graduate School of Management (AGSM). They’ve spent the last year learning from one another and finding innovative solutions.
Darren Nichols ’95 wandered into government planning via a privatesector career in construction, and he credits his former economics advisor, Russ Beaton ’61, for showing him the way. Nichols came back to campus several years after he had graduated for a “what-should-I-do-now” chat with Beaton, and the professor piqued his interest with something called economic sustainability.
“Planning to preserve resources and not smother growth at the same time — I knew then that this was going to be my angle,” Nichols says. So he went to work with the community services division of the DLCD, which occupies the second floor of the Oregon Agriculture Building a few blocks north of Gatke Hall, and today he helps communities across the state get their plans together. A few cubicles away from his office, those plans (and the myriad bits of correspondence required to assemble them) are all filed in one room.
The bundles of letters and maps, all paper and cardboard, plot out district grids, describe how to manage the state’s enormous open spaces, and establish the chain of responsibility for statewide compliance. Want to know how The Dalles defines its flood plain, or who’s in charge of the twolane road that runs around the rim of Crater Lake? Nichols and his colleagues have the answers, even if finding them might take a little time thumbing through manila folders.
These documents don’t script how everyone uses their land per se. The DLCD typically provides local authorities with a list of 19 priorities to use in drafting their own guidelines, based on the needs of their area, and then gives a stamp of approval when the localities submit compliant end-products. From then on, the DLCD is fairly hands-off. This makes some sense, Nichols says, given that Oregon’s communities and landscapes vary dramatically from region to region and the ones who understand them the best are often those who actually live there; it also means that communities’ strategies don’t always overlap neatly.
Teddy (Ramsey) Leland ’88, operations services division manager for the department, sees some of these management challenges through a budgetary lens. “The DLCD is one of many departments that have adjusted to diminishing resources,” she says, “and it’s a challenging time right now to meet Oregonians’ various needs.” A history major at Willamette, Leland grew up in Klamath Falls and has been around as Oregon’s land-use story has evolved. Her perspective has helped her deal with the quantity and variety of information, as well as the current fiscal balancing act — which hit home recently with a 17-percent cut and the disheartening decision to shelve a digitization and modernization program the DLCD was just beginning to frame in.
Modernization in Pixels
The DLCD needs technology. What the department should be going after, Nichols says, is better engagement among Oregonians using new digital tools. “Our biggest enemy in planning is lack of public understanding,” he says. “If we do our job right, we can use technology to teach citizens how to take ownership of their community and its future.”
To do this, Nichols and his colleagues began a modernization project in 2008 to take advantage of new web portals and GPS mapping, plus Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) readouts, which record every bump and wobble on Oregon’s terrain down to a resolution of several dots per square centimeter. These technologies are cutting-edge enough to redefine how people view their land and understand their place on it, but they are also accessible enough now to be viable tools for governments. The DLCD came up with several goals, including: (1) creating an online library of historical documents, like plans and legislation, that are keyword searchable and public, (2) mining useful predictive data from existing materials, and (3) using real-time mapping and analysis of the landscape to inform current land-use and investment discussions.
Steve Lucker ’79, a third member of the Willamette DLCD contingent, was especially interested in the latter goal. Among other things, Lucker maps flood-prone areas and those at risk for other natural hazards, and he saw right away that there is a practical incentive to use as much technology as the department can get its hands on. Using digitized terrain bases, it is now possible to introduce any number of data sets as overlays (think of clear overhead-projector sheets with specific information on them — stack them up and the picture gets more and more detailed) to produce a graphical representation of what would happen in a 100-year flood, for example, or how property values might change with new public investments like roads or parks.
To use Nichols and Lucker’s examples, these data and systems can enable builders to see how traffic changes and construction affect the cost of public transportation; schools can tell with better certainty if a new roundabout might enable more students to walk safely to class; homebuyers can evaluate new lots for how well they use natural sunlight to ease energy costs. These are the kinds of outcomes the department is after.
Trouble is, they’re complicated to execute and they aren’t free. When the economy tumbled, so did modernization for the DLCD.
Enter Atkinson Graduate School of Management (AGSM). Larry Ettner, longtime member of the faculty and professor of management practice, got in touch with the DLCD early in 2010 and proposed what he thought might be a mutually beneficial working group. Jim Rue, deputy director of the DLCD, remembers the day and time: “Willamette came to us between the first and second budget cuts and said, ‘We’d like to work with you on a project,’” he says. “That definitely got our attention.”
The collaboration came about through AGSM’s Practical Application for Careers and Enterprises (PACE) program, which puts incoming MBA students into teams who connect with external organizations to do valuable consulting work that fills up each student’s real-world tool belt. Ettner and Rue discussed how a PACE group might be wellsuited to pick up some of the strategic work the DLCD needed but could no longer afford to contract out, and they came up with a plan.
By the fall, the DLCD had retooled and started version 2.0 of their modernization program. Department representatives began meeting regularly with 10 MBA students to identify needs and possible solutions. In one meeting the group assessed the current state of affairs and got familiar with the vast archive of information they were dealing with; in another they decided that third-party software systems and data storage were probably going to be necessary to account for what would soon be a staggering amount of uploaded data; later, they explored business models and assessed what kinds of external relationships they would need to build in the near future.
“We had ratcheted down what we were doing as a division aside from what was required of us by law,” Rue says. “The time we were spending on the data and the technical end went away. But we saw right away when we met with the PACE group that, if these 10 students put in nine hours a week, we’d be gaining 90 hours per week of free consulting. It’s been wonderfully helpful, and it costs nothing.”
As it happened, the PACE group assigned to the DLCD project was uniquely qualified for the work. The team consisted mostly of international students who brought an array of perspectives on government and land development. “All but three of the students in the group come from outside the U.S.,” Leland says, “and it’s been very helpful to us for problem solving.” She notes that one student, Tuan Doan MBA’12, who comes from Vietnam, lent a professional background in architecture and urban design to the conversation. Sandeep Ramesh MBA’12 brings experience in geographic information systems from India.
“We’re considered an ‘MBA for Career Change’ group, meaning that we’ve all had previous work experience,” says Lindsey Fecteau MBA’12. “Our backgrounds cover finance, accounting, engineering, HR and architecture, and the dynamics of the group have proven to be a challenging, yet beneficial, experience. We’re encouraged to think outside of the box. We’re helping the DLCD do the same.”
Over the course of an academic year, the process has yielded a new Request for Proposal, which the DLCD and the PACE team members hope will garner support and funding from legislators. One important event is still in the future, though: The teams have planned a summit of around 20 parties, all of whom are interested in the work the DLCD and the PACE students have been doing. Amazon Web Services will be at the table. ESRI, grandfather company of GIS, or Geographic Information Systems, will be at the table. The DLCD knows it can’t succeed alone — there’s no current way for them to fund and build a new data center to house all the new terabyte-sized maps, for instance — but others can help, and if the DLCD/PACE team can articulate the profitability of partnerships, everyone involved can reap the rewards.
The takeaway from this, looking at it from an outsider’s point of view, is that the DLCD’s operation has evolved from a collective brainstorm into a nimble business model.
The work, of course, will go on for a while, and the MBA students’ time with the project is coming to a close. “Aside from money, there’s always a learning curve and a time commitment to finishing such a big project,” Rue says. “The budget cuts and the work with the PACE team have sharpened our ability to see what’s critical and
what isn’t.” There are new systems involved — software, hardware — as well as many staff hours that will have to be allocated to bring the project to fruition and keep new partnerships going. But current conditions have produced innovation, and that’s what all partners in the conversation are after.
“The collaboration isn’t about making more work for anyone,” Rue says. “It’s about giving students a project they can sink their teeth into and providing insights that are central to our business model. We’re all getting tangible benefit. So are Oregonians, we think.”
Senate Bill 100
In a 1973 speech to the Oregon Legislature, Gov. Tom McCall railed against what he called “sagebrush subdivisions, coastal condo-mania, and the ravenous rampages of suburbia.” These concerns provided the genesis for Senate Bill 100, which enacted the land use regulations now maintained by the DLCD.
According to the bill’s preamble, “Uncoordinated use of lands within this state threaten[s] the orderly development, the environment of this state and the health, safety, order, convenience, prosperity and welfare of the people of this state.” By 1976, Oregon citizens and the Land Conservation and Development Commission (LC DC) had outlined 19 planning goals that local governments must observe when writing their comprehensive plans. These pertain to citizen involvement and coordinated planning, agricultural and forest lands, historic and natural resources, urban development, and so on.
One attempt at repeal was made in 1982. During an economic slump, opposition groups feared that land use regulations would hinder future economic growth, while support groups maintained that the regulations stimulated it. Legislation in the 1990s attempted to strip away powers of Senate Bill 100, but these were also unsuccessful.
To learn more and see all 19 planning goals, visit the DLCD website at lcd.state.or.us.
The PACE program is one anchor of AGSM’s experiential curriculum, and it remains an indemand resource for organizations within and outside of the Northwest. Professor Larry Ettner reports that he received formal working proposals from 22 government and nonprofit organizations last year. He could accept 12 of them.
“We always have to look at the nature of these projects and assess them for fit,” he says.“Are the students capable of doing the work? Is the scope appropriate? Do the organization’s resources support the program?”
Government agencies currently connected with a PACE group include the Bonneville Power
Administration, the City of Albany and the Oregon Department of Transportation. Nonprofits include Friends of Children, Mercy Corps Northwest, Oregon Public Broadcasting and the Children’s Justice Alliance.
Learn more at willamette.edu/agsm.
Is the Beach a Highway?
In Oregon, one popular assumption related to land use says that the sandy beach running all the way down the coastline is technically classified as a state highway. And it used to be true.
The highway designation dates from the early 1900s as a way to count the beach as public land and thus set it aside from development. This early conservation effort did the job for a few decades, but, so far as we can tell, the highway rule was nullified by the 1967 Oregon Beach Bill, signed by Gov. McCall. That bill clarified directly that any sand between the low tide and vegetation lines is to remain public land.
DLCD members Darren Nichols ‘95, Teddy (Ramsey) Leland ‘88 and Steve Lucker ‘79
Thiru Selvan Sathiamoorthy MBA’11 and Lindsey Fecteau MBA’12 lend new views on an old plot of land. Below: Margareth Njau MBA’12.
MBA students (left to right) Tuan Doan MBA’12, Sandeep Ramesh MBA’12 and Sultan Bugshan MBA’12 get to know the lay of the land.