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How the plan is used to make decisions in Portland

City officials use the Comprehensive Plan to guide land use and public facility investment decisions

Comprehensive Plan scope

The Comprehensive Plan is used for making land use decisions, primarily legislatively, but sometimes quasi‐judicially. This includes decisions about how land is used or developed, and public facility investment decisions related to those planned land uses or developments.

The Comprehensive Plan and these tools are not static; they are expected to change over time. City Council will consider decisions to adopt, amend, or repeal parts of the Comprehensive Plan or implementation tools in response to changing conditions, needs, trends, and other information.

The goals and policies of the Comprehensive Plan are implemented through regulations, land use decisions, agreements, and community development programs, including:

  • Zoning Code
  • Zoning Map
  • Service Coordination Agreements 
  • Annexations
  • Urban Renewal Areas
  • Development Agreements

The City also refers to the plan to inform non‐land use decisions, scope projects and assess alternatives, guide public facility investment choices, and support grant applications, among other things. Other public agencies, like the State of Oregon or Metro, may refer to the plan when determining if a project is consistent with the City of Portland’s local Comprehensive Plan. The Comprehensive Plan is a community tool that is often used for advocacy and to track accountability. Community members are encouraged to use the plan to monitor City projects and decisions and to:

  • Advocate for projects and programs to be included in the annual City budget.
  • Review, evaluate, and comment on proposed legislative projects.
  • Review, evaluate, and comment on Comprehensive Plan‐related projects and programs.
  • Review, evaluate, and comment on site‐specific land use reviews that are subject to Comprehensive Plan review. 
  • Support or appeal approved land use reviews and legislative projects.
  • Apply for a change to the Comprehensive Plan Land Use Map designation for a property they own, apply for a street vacation, or apply for any other land use approval for which a project must be reviewed for compliance with the Comprehensive Plan. 
  • Serve as background information when applying for grants, funding, or other programs.

How are decisions balanced?

With all legislative changes and some quasi‐judicial decisions, the decision‐maker must document how the proposed decision complies with the Comprehensive Plan’s policies.

A decision “complies” if it can be found to be equally or more supportive of the existing plan as a whole. If these findings cannot be made, City Council has two choices: 1) to not make the change; or 2) amend the plan to allow the change. However, the reverse is not true; Council is not compelled to make a decision just because it would meet plan policy. 

The Comprehensive Plan contains a broad range of policies for Council to consider. Each policy describes a desirable outcome. But it is unlikely that all policies are relevant to a decision and that a particular decision could be expected to advance all of the policies in the plan equally well. For this reason, policies are examined for their applicability to the decision at hand, and only applicable policies are considered. Council must then weigh and balance applicable policies to determine whether a particular decision would “on the whole” comply with the Comprehensive Plan.

In virtually all decisions, some applicable policies will weigh — or matter — more than others. For example, a policy that specifically addresses the topic or location of the change being made would probably outweigh a policy that applies to a wide variety of topics or to the city at large. Most policies begin with a verb, and some verbs establish stronger imperatives than others. Accordingly, a policy to “require” something may outweigh a policy to “encourage” something else. 

But even the strongest policies do not automatically trump other policies. Every decision is different, supported by different facts. The particular policies that matter more will change from one decision to another. There is no set formula — no number of “heavier” policies equals a larger set of “lighter” policies. In cases where there are competing directions embodied by different policies, City Council may choose the direction they believe best embodies the plan in toto.

The vision and guiding principles in this Comprehensive Plan help to provide additional guidance when policies are balanced. Council ordinances do, however, contain a “conclusion on law” explaining how complementary and competing policies have been weighed and balanced in determining whether the proposed decision complies with the Comprehensive Plan.

Legislative and quasi‐judicial land use decisions

Land use decisions are generally made one of two ways: legislatively or quasi‐judicially. Some zoning‐ and development‐related decisions are also made administratively.

Legislative process

Legislative decisions establish long‐range land use plans, investments, policies, or regulations that can affect large parts of the city and many people. Legislative land use decisions can also be used to change any element of the Comprehensive Plan and change or create new related codes and area plans intended to implement the plan. These changes are accomplished through adoption of an ordinance by City Council.

Part of this process is the review and adoption of “findings” that the proposal is consistent with the goals and policies of the Comprehensive Plan or with State and Metro rules. Legislative projects typically are:

  • Initiated by City Council or City agencies.
  • Reviewed by the Planning and Sustainability Commission (PSC), which transmits its recommendation to City Council. 

Quasi‐judicial process

Quasi‐judicial decisions are used for site‐specific projects that affect one or a limited number of specific properties. They typically are initiated by an applicant, like a private property owner. They tend to affect fewer neighborhoods and people. Examples include site‐specific amendments to the Comprehensive Plan Map or Zoning Map, proposals to demolish historic landmarks, Type IV demolition reviews, or requests for street vacations, among others.

These decisions include the following steps or elements:

  • City staff or a hearings officer reviews and makes decisions on quasi‐judicial proposals.
  • There is often an opportunity for a public hearing.
  • They are reviewed for compliance with specific approval criteria in the Zoning Code.
  • In limited cases, the criteria may require findings of compliance with the Comprehensive Plan.

Administrative process

Administrative decisions are those made under clear and objective standards without exercise of discretion. An example includes application of numerical setback standards in the Zoning Code, or the determination of needed public improvements based on street classification maps in the Comprehensive Plan, and published engineering standards. Administrative decisions are typically made by City staff and are not individually reviewed against the goals and policies of the Comprehensive Plan.