The Case of the Disappearing Backyard

CascadeNewLogoLast week, Cascade Policy Institute released a report investigating the disappearance of backyards throughout the Portland metropolitan region.

In 1995, the average lot size for a new home in Washington County was 15,000 square feet. Today, new residential housing projects in Washington County list 7,000 square foot lots as “executive housing,” an apparent luxury only for the rich. Has the American Dream disappeared in the Portland region?

The purpose of this research project was to see if the disappearance of backyards was real or an illusion. After examining the adopted land-use plans and accompanying zoning codes of the three metro counties and a cross-section of local cities, it became clear that private backyards in fact are being zoned out of existence, in order to comply with state and regional land-use mandates.

All new development projects on lands recently approved for urban growth boundary expansion in the Portland region have high-density overlays that prevent traditional backyards (roughly 4-5 units/acre), except for a small percentage of all units. In addition, many older neighborhoods with large lots are experiencing an epidemic of teardowns, due to the artificial shortage of buildable land. Homes with large yards are being purchased, demolished, and replaced with several homes or towering apartment complexes.

As a result of density mandates, homebuyers are increasingly paying more while getting less in the way of private open space.

According to report author John Glennon, “Local planners know that most people prefer lower-density neighborhoods; yet zoning codes have been written to take that option away.”

Cascade Policy Institute President and CEO John A. Charles, Jr. noted, “As Metro prepares for another round of possible growth boundary expansions, elected officials should think hard about the effects of land-use regulation on livability. In a state that is already 98% open space, there is no reason to create an artificial shortage of buildable land. The State Legislature should enact reforms this year to remove high-density mandates from local governments.”

The full report, Have Private Backyards Been Outlawed in the Portland Metropolitan Area?, can be downloaded here.

Cascade Policy Institute is Oregon’s free market public policy research center.

  • Myke

    I think their point is to minimize urban sprawl. At least for the poorer folks who are trapped in the metro rinse cycle. Those with the means will continue to commute back to the ranch. Man its good to live out of the city.

  • Bob Clark

    Better to let farmers die captive on their low yield lands (relative to higher yielding farms in the Midwest and those of Northern California) and grow moss on all the rest than allow people to really enjoy nature by living within and around green spaces and semi-green spaces. Better existing land owners be squeezed out ultimately selling to a country club lawyer enviro outfit, who then turns it over to the state to sit their gathering moss, or left in envior lawyer hands with special invite only.

    Yes, to each their own Soviet style condo in a high tower grey colored complex. Individual freedom and property rights reformed to make the individual just another subject of the state and local government.

    Forgive my “violin” here, but it plays the truth nonetheless.

    • David from Mill City

      Once agricultural land is developed as housing it is both difficult and expensive to return it to agricultural use. Weather patterns are changing and in some agricultural areas of the United States not for the better. Areas of California know for their agricultural production are in the middle of a multi-year drought which is likely to get worse before it gets better. Assuming we want to eat, and have a varied diet in the future we need to protect the agricultural lands so it is there in the near future when it is needed.