Chris Maletis is driving his SUV along Highway 551 between Aurora and Wilsonville at the southern end of Clackamas County. It takes a few minutes to drive around the 385 acres Maletis owns here with his brother Tom.
“We’re coming right up on the airport, which employs hundreds of people,” said Maletis, who contends this area is urban in nature.
The property includes the Langdon Farms Golf Club. But Maletis sees his land as helping address the region's — and especially Clackamas County's — shortfall of industrial property.
The Portland region expects to add a million people in the next 50 years. And this chunk of land at the southern end of Clackamas County sits, at least metaphorically, in the middle of the Portland area’s growth debate — and this fall’s election. The property’s future has divided candidates for Clackamas County’s top office.
Traffic on 551 has nearly tripled since the 1980s. The state considers Maletis' property farmland. But Maletis says it hasn’t been farmed for years.
“Some meth guys came in and basically stripped all of the electricity. Stripped everything out. So there was greenhouses; buildings that had transformers," he said. "This is what we’re trying to protect for fifty years. This.”
Incumbent Clackamas County Chair John Ludlow rides with Chris Maletis.
“If his property was anywhere but immediately south of the Willamette River, nobody would be causing a fuss," Ludlow said. "Who drew the Mason-Dixon line as the Willamette River?”
Oregon’s farmland protection efforts started 40 years ago amid the fiery rhetoric of Republican Gov. Tom McCall.
In a now-famous speech to the 1973 state legislature, Gov. McCall issued a stark warning: “Sagebrush subdivisions, coastal condomania and the ravenous rampage of surburbia here in the Willamette Valley all threaten to mock Oregon's status as the environmental model of this nation."
McCall was talking, in part, about “Charbonneau," a 470-acre subdivision in the middle of farmland not far from Maletis’ property.
Ludlow says Maletis' proposal to develop his land does not threaten nearby farmland.
“This is just barely a scratch on that," he said.
Ludlow's challenger, county Commissioner Jim Bernard, disagrees.
“There’s got to be a place, somewhere, where there’s a line — a real line that you can’t pass over,” Bernard said recently, while standing on a vegetable farm a few miles south of Maletis' golf course.
It's part of an area often called "French Prairie" for the French trappers who settled here 150 years ago. Farmers praise the quality soil and a climate that yields long growing seasons.
“We need to protect this," Bernard said. "That’s what former Gov. Tom McCall wanted. He saw growth going all the way to Salem and beyond and saw that we need to protect this land or we’re going to be buying our produce from Mexico.”
Several state agencies are on record opposing industry in this area. They raised concerns about impacts on nearby farmland, and worried that the transportation and water infrastructure wouldn't be adequate to support large-scale industrial development. Officials at the Metro regional government said public input they collected showed mostly opposition to allowing industry in French Prairie.
State business officials and the Port of Portland had advocated developing Maletis’ property in the past but not now. Supporters, like Maletis and Ludlow, point to subsequent studies from county officials and task forces defending development. But those reports don't appear to be changing minds at Metro.
Clackamas County must revise its map of rural and urban reserves — the map Metro would use to chart future growth. But the two governments haven’t agreed on a final map. Without one, the region’s urban growth boundary, which separates urban growth from farm and forest land, would not expand and allow more growth in Clackamas and instead would focus development west in Washington County.
When it comes to reaching an agreement with Metro, Ludlow tends to take a harder line.
“Are you allowed to have a diversity of opinion? Evidently not with Metro," he said. "Take their way or don’t. We’re not being treated fairly.”
Bernard is more willing to go along. If he were to become chair, he said, he’d be willing to shelve plans for the Maletis property.
“Frankly, Metro’s not going to talk to us until we get the South of the Willamette off the list,” Bernard concluded.
Bernard said relationships with other leaders in the area have fallen apart under chair Ludlow.
“We have destroyed in four years what we took decades to build: relationships," Bernard said. "With Metro, whether you like them or not, they’re here to stay. And they won’t even sit at the table with us. When we go down to Salem, they won’t even let us in the door. Well, they’ll let me in the door.”
Ludlow said Bernard is exaggerating, and that the county’s relationships have always been complex.
The race may ultimately be a referendum on how the county views growth and urban planning. It may also be a lens into the county’s party alliances. The job is technically non-partisan, but Bernard is a Democrat.
And Ludlow? He calls himself a “bleeding-heart liberal” Republican.