Impacts of growth on Sisters
Last updated 5/17/2022 at Noon
People are concerned that the recent rapid growth occurring in Sisters might change the character of our town. The current population is about 3,286. Portland State University projects that by 2041 there could be 6,700 within the city limits. How do we provide for that kind of increase while maintaining the quality of life and ambiance for which Sisters is known?
Those were questions the community wrestled with Thursday night as residents packed the Sisters Fire Hall Community Room for a town Hall forum on “Keeping Sisters, Sisters.”
By a show of hands, over half the people in the room indicated they have lived in Sisters for fewer than five years. The rest of the people were fairly evenly divided in five year increments up to more than 25 years.
Each of the six panelists offered insights into their area of expertise, to help the audience understand Sisters’ history, how Oregon land-use laws impact the way the city grows, what City officials are doing to help grow the city responsibly, what the future of community medical services looks like, and the problems faced when trying to provide affordable workforce housing for those who work in Sisters.
Lifelong Camp Sherman/Sisters resident Debbie Newport described the specialness of Sisters as being “more than just nature. It’s the community that exists here, the heart and soul of the place, that makes people stop and stay.” She asked the audience, “Who do we want to be?”
Starting with the Native Americans, and tracing the arrival of settlers, the soldiers and the Hindmans at Camp Polk, and wagon roads passing through in the late 1880s, Newport talked about the importance of the logging industry for almost six decades, and how, when logging ceased and the high school closed, the core of the community dissolved. However, investment by Brooks Resources in building Black Butte Ranch provided regeneration for Sisters into a place for tourism and recreation.
Newport drew the comparison of Sisters in 1965 being like present-day Idahna and the possibility of it looking like Aspen, Colorado, by 2035.
In 1989, people were again excited about what was happening in Sisters, and they gathered for two-and-a-half days at the rodeo grounds to plot their future course. They decided the high school needed to come back because it had been such an integral part of what happened in town. The people were empowered then, and that has continued for over 30 years. The population has doubled several times since then, especially with the construction of the City sewer, which allowed for more building. Newport’s hope is that as we grow, and plan for the future, we will “hold on to the heart of our community.”
Over the past five years, the City has been doing the work necessary to plan for the next 20 years. That planning is required by the state land-use laws, which were signed by Governor Tom McCall in May 1973. The 19 statewide planning goals (14 that apply in Sisters) are designed to guarantee citizen involvement in making decisions regarding where they live. The State protects farms and forest lands from development and requires cities to have regularly updated plans to accommodate for planned growth for 20 years. The land-use laws were adopted to limit urban sprawl, which would usurp agricultural and forest lands.
Sisters citizens completed the Vision Plan several years ago, which provided the initial framework for the future of Sisters and identified 20 strategies to achieve the goals. Much progress has been made on a number of those strategies, according to City Manager Cory Misley. In 2021, the Comprehensive Plan was updated using the 14 statewide goals as guidance for 20 years of planning.
When you shake it all out, Sisters does not currently have much buildable land left, certainly not enough to provide housing for 3,400 more people by 2041.
This year, the work is being done with the housing needs analysis, economic lands analysis, housing plan update, and buildable lands inventory. These all inform what efficiency measures might be utilized to try and meet the 20-year Comprehensive Plan goals. Those measures could include development code revisions to allow for taller building heights, smaller lot sizes, and greater density within the urban growth boundary (UGB).
Not all efficiency measures have to be instituted. There is some flexibility for towns under 10,000 population. However, the City must make a good-faith effort before they can request the state increase the UGB (which is also the city limits) to provide more space for building. In most cities, the UGB lies outside the city limits.
It is no secret that very little land is left within the UGB for building housing. According to David Brandt of Housing Works, the regional housing authority, there is no land currently available at an affordable price in Sisters on which to build affordable workforce housing.
According to Nick Lelack, Deschutes County administrator, the County has numerous parcels of land that it owns in other parts of the county, but not one in Sisters. The County has been able to donate, or sell at a reduced price, land to other cities for affordable housing.
Robin Meter, interim administrative officer for St. Charles Health System, explained how the COVID-19 pandemic created a sea-change in health care. There is a sizable nurse shortage, which will probably continue. St. Charles is currently running on a negative operating margin as a result of the pandemic.
The health system is currently beta-testing urgent care services by phone for treating conditions like infections, colds, and other minor issues. They are working on being able to provide urgent care services at the Sisters clinic as soon as they can hire laboratory and radiology technicians. There is a new advanced care provider coming on board in June. To have a freestanding emergency room, Meter said it requires a population of 25,000-30,000 people.
According to Housing Works’ Brandt, the median house price in Sisters is $730,000 and would require income of $120,000 a year to meet mortgage criteria. The median rent for an apartment is now $1,800 per month, which necessitates a job paying $28 an hour in order to not be spending over 30 percent on housing. Retail, service workers, and teachers can’t afford to live in Sisters. High-density residential land in Sisters sells for $1 million an acre and there’s almost no available land, according to Brandt. Commercial construction costs are $300 per square foot in Sisters.
Deschutes County is the most unaffordable county in the state, according to Lelack.
The town hall meeting was presented by Citzens4Community (C4C) and The Nugget Newspaper.