Portland Tribune article on ReCode Portland sparks lively discussion


Today Jim Redden of the Portland Tribune did a solid story on the new ReCode Portland campaign, which is currently facilitated by TLC Farm. Once on the website, of course, frequent commenters with well-established anti-left perspectives jumped into the fray -- and so did some amazing allies with beautifully supportive things to say. Overall, it's a wonderful opportunity to deepen the conversation around what real sustainability, and democracy, can and should look like.

I enjoyed the chance to respond at length:

Dear Tribune readers,

Thanks so much for your energetic and often inspiring responses to ReCode Portland, this exciting new aspect of TLC Farm's programs! Portland's strength, and our best hope as an urban community, lies in so many folk with a passionate commitment to grassroots action for positive change. Reasonable people may disagree about the best approach, of course; that lends the resilience of diversity to our work. But I'm honored to be part of both the practice, and the discussion.

> Not all of [the laws] make any sence. Very few of them
> are really enforced.

> The only reason these people are even getting any
> attention is because they brought it upon them selves.

Indeed, that's true. As another commenter pointed out, a great many households in Portland make effective use of sustainability technologies that are formally illegal, by acting more or less underground. Why not us? Or, we could have relied on the fact that all our local officials and bureaus are looking to make changes anyway; a few wonks in a room could solve many of the problems. Why did we launch a public campaign to highlight these incongruities? Why did we invite criticism by talking at length about all of these "problems" with a reporter?

The reason is that we want to make this conversation as public, as open, and as democratic as we possible can. As a culture -- and as citizens of a city many consider a beacon of sustainability -- our best hope to unleash the innovation and creativity of the people in finding healthier and more responsible ways of living together. It's going to take all of us to not only eliminate ridiculous codes, but to transform practices and attitudes to better achieve our true values.

I'm going to engage the conversation in two sections: first, some brief clarification of the article itself; second, a more detailed answer to the few critical (but doubtless well-intended) commenters.

Thanks, everyone! See my next comment for further details.
J. Brush
TLC Farm legal coordinator


Now, going public involves some risks. Jim's a great reporter, but newspapers rarely get every single detail or aspect of a story completely right. So let me first clear up a few details.

Perhaps most importantly, the headline and first sentence are probably misleading. By no means were we shocked to discover that there would be zoning and code challenges involved in this project; indeed, we have always considered this a great chance for stakeholders to collaboratively solve long-standing issues. Some of the nuances were news (graywater is encouraged in WA, CA, and AZ -- but illegal in OR?), but positively transforming regulations has been part of the plan from the beginning.

Secondly, the approx. $20,000 master planning costs, and the approx. $6000 conditional use costs, are alternatives. With a master plan you have 10 years to initiate all the uses; with a conditional use review you have only 3.

Thirdly, while we support an experimental approach, the sustainability technologies we advocate are themselves well-proven. What we need to experiment with are social, economic, and political approaches to rapidly growing the use of such technologies.

Finally, BES (not OSD) combined with Metro and the Friends of Tryon Creek State Park to purchase a conservation easement over Park-adjacent land independently appraised at $400,000. As richard/s noted, that combined with a $600,000 mortgage from ShoreBank Pacific (at 8.5% interest, amortized over 25 years), as well as a $100,000 second mortgage from Equity Trust, Inc. (5% amortized over 10 years), and then donations ($350,000 from about 1500 people) and bridge loans. (To answer richard/s's question: yes, our mortgage payments have been promptly made. See our public financial statements here: http://tryonfarm.org/share/node/14 . Second half of 2007 will be available shortly.)

Government partners were particularly pleased at the efficiency of this public/private partnership: not only do they have a permanent protective property interest in a proportion of the land, but they have the security of the terms of the 99-year lease with OSALT, which require that the entire parcel be used for sustainable research and education purposes. (No danger of selling out, L Gleason!) Government bodies got conservation of ecologically valuable land worth almost $1.5m, plus research, demonstration, and education programs, all for $300,000. That's a deal!

There are a few more inaccuracies in the article -- Brenna was on the Vision Council's engagement committee, not the steering committee; as a young campaign, ReCode Portland hasn't formalized partnerships with other groups yet; the only new structures built so far are outbuildings and temporary structures under the 200 sq ft building code threshhold; etc. -- but I'd like to turn now to specific issues brought up by commenters on-line.


> Human waste should not be used as fertilizer.

> Uh, Kumbaya Kids? The developing world is a disease ridden shi**ole...due in large part to the lack of modern santitation systems.
> Do the Tryon Creek folks intend to train their poop to stay
on their property? That must be some special poop. Smart too.
> Why has the environmental left been fighting against septic systems if they accomplish the same goal as your composting toilet?

This is a hot topic! "Wake up!" answered well, but I'll take the opportunity to go into more depth. "Modern" (ie. 19th century technology) sanitation involves dumping s$#% into drinking water, then piping it into the river when it's raining, or into a big cesspool next to the river when it's not. Even after the treatment plants, many municipal systems routinely violate the pollution standards set by DEQ and the EPA. Regardless, the nutrients fertilize something, usually unhelpful algal blooms.

That's what happens in the richest country in the world. "Developing world" urban areas suffer from far more heavily overtaxed systems (or none at all), without traditional practices or effective alternatives.

Extensive research into "waste treatment" shows what works: dense layers of biotic activity, in appropriate combination. This is a textbook opportunity for real sustainability: decentralized transformation of "waste", near the source, into valuable resources.

Maintained septic systems can work adequately, but they take far more space than is necessary and run the risk of leaching into groundwater. The reason is that they direct pathogen-filled liquid into the subsoil, in which there is much less biological activity. The best solutions maximize the opportunity for topsoil microorganisms, fungi, and plants to feed on and outcompete pathogens, and/or create so much heat that they can't survive. This can be done in two main ways:

1) Intensive wet bioremediation systems. Living Machines, rock and reed beds, mycofiltration systems, and other approaches increase the complexity and density of biotic activity interacting with water-borne wastes, while preventing leaching into the environment. They are very space-efficient, and work best at a neighborhood or institutional level where there is adequate consistency and attention to the system. We intend to create a demonstration model of such a system on the land, and streamline the permitting process.

2) Composting systems. A wide variety of technologies (as big or small as necessary) allow for a combination of nitrogen-rich "humanure" and carbon-rich mulch to be biologically processed safely, isolated from potential disease vectors, often involving temperatures high enough to rapidly kill pathogens. Once it has been completely processed (far more completely than "modern" municipal systems), it can be used on orchards or landscaping plants (to be super-safe, once again) in place of chemical fertilizers. Several states have operations that have been running successfully for years, even decades.

All approaches have been extensively tested, and our goal is to contiunue to verify the safety of all of these technologies exhaustively and finetune parameters for specific local situations.

By paying more attention to setting up an efficient system, and then small but regular doses of maintenance, we can create decentralized, safe, healthy closed-loop cycles rather than massive and obsolete billion-dollar industrial stopgap measures. Yes, in fact, we can "train" our poop to stay on our property by efficiently bioremediating it, and turning it into trees.

first things first:
> I think it is sad that the time, energy and dollars that could go to code fixes which would really benefit the community as a whole, or improve schools, or fix potholes will go to benefit this neo-hippy pot farm

Payin' my own way...:
> You see, cyn, those nasty folks sitting in their fancy homes after driving their big cars home....paid for all of it themselves.

> Note the difference from what your leftist, subsidized, grasping, lazy kumbaya-singin' bums at Tryon Creek want?

Old fart in Dayton, OR:
> More like a hippie commune, I thought we'd outgrown such childish ideological dreaming.

Well, the essential point of ReCode Portland is to benefit the community as a whole, by working with all interested stakeholders in creating regulations that accommodate and support the grassroots sustainability goals that the vast majority of Portlanders want. And TLC Farm provides low-cost and subsidized education to public school kids, and systematically supports alternative transportation modes (bikes, buses, carpools) that reduce traffic and potholes (which is also a key aspect of ReCode Portland).

It's a bit ridiculous to call a volunteer-run organization that has accomplished truly miraculous things by bringing together thousands upon thousands of active supporters and dozens upon dozens of organizations, "lazy". And for heaven's sake, we're open to the public 6 days a week and anyone can see we're not a "pot farm".

But are we "subsidized"? That's a more complicated question. As a non-profit, TLC Farm is in a sense subsidized because donations are tax-deductible. In addition, we receive grants from both government and non-government entities to perform work in the public interest. But compared to the enormous corporate welfare in this country, the tax loopholes for the wealthy, even the budgets of more establishment organizations, we are laughably un-subsidized by public funds.

Moreover, the residential community on the land (called Cedar Moon), is a completely separate legal entity that receives none of the funds directed to TLC Farm, and which pays 2/3 of the mortgage on the land. That's right: all of the residents of Cedar Moon pay market rates to live here, and then volunteer extensively for the non-profit.

And then we have to talk about the true "subsidies": the real, hard costs of pollution and wasted resources and climate change that are fueled by a disastrously short-sighted gluttony of fossil fuels, with the tab picked up by the government or (more often) future generations. We are much better weaned from those subsidies than most.

Hippy commune? Well, some of our volunteers have dreads, and others are factory-working bikers, and others are Lake Oswego grandmas, and others are soccer moms. This is a place where a wide cross-section of Portlanders feel comfortable and interact. And while Cedar Moon residents don't share incomes (the strict definition of commune), there is a lot of sharing of resources and consensus decision-making -- we like to call that "community".

> It is amazing how quickly the leftists who want to control everyone else....want to excuse themselves because their hopes and dreams are so much more lofty and poetic.

Ah yes, the political question.

Now, TLC Farm includes leftists, and liberals, and libertarians, and centrists, and folk who are sick and tired of politics and just want to do the work of creating a better world. I'm not going to speak for TLC Farm, but for myself.

I don't want the government to control everyone else, and I don't want exceptions. I want democracy: better and better social systems for freeing up human freedom and creativity, while protecting against abuse and oppression.

On that front, I think we're in trouble. Government is largely in the hands of big corporations and monied elites, we all know that. Spending is focused on militarism and repression, missiles and prisons. Foolish and irresponsible practices (enormous houses and cars that leave folk lonely, industrial farming, clearcuts) are heavily incentivized in an economic system that rewards short-term greed at the expense of long-term wisdom -- and then pays off the banks and investors with the people's money when the chickens come home to roost.

It's up to us, as regular people working together, to create alternatives to this poor pretense to "democracy". Real democracy doesn't mean that anyone can do whatever they want without consequences, but it also shouldn't mean that your only involvement in choosing our future is a ballotbox every few years. Planning should be brought as close as is effectively possible to the impacted people, to responsible grassroots community networks making collaborative decisions and taking direct actions. Government is best when it facilitates us, not dominates us.

For me, that's what ReCode Portland is all about.

Thanks everyone. I look forward to further discussion (though I rarely get much time to read and respond like this)!


Feedback and participation welcome! Please send bug reports to web@tryonfarm.org