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By Janie Har January 30, 2013

Is Oak Grove one of the largest cities in Oregon, in Clackamas County?

In an exit interview with The Oregonian, outgoing Clackamas County board chairwoman Charlotte Lehan was asked what she would have done differently while in office.

"I've been asked that question before, so I've thought about it quite a bit. The only thing I can think of is the work we did on Oak Grove on the tree ordinance," she said. Some people from that part of unincorporated Clackamas County wanted a tree ordinance, but Lehan says the county should not have helped. Why? Because that’s work cities do, and if anything, the county should have helped launch "Oak Grove into its own city-hood" so it could pass its own tree ordinance.

"They are way too big, they are one of the largest cities in Oregon. They should be a powerhouse in Oregon. They should have a faction at the county level, the state level and the city level," she said. Later, in the interview, she said, "It's the biggest city in Clackamas County and it's not a city."

That we had a potential city this large in Clackamas County was news to us. We wanted to know: If incorporated, would Oak Grove be the largest city in Clackamas County? Would it be one of the largest cities in Oregon?

Oak Grove has a cinema and a market center. Its population in 2010 was 16,629, according to the U.S. Census. That didn’t sound very large to us, so we consulted our colleagues who cover the county. And it turns out that county insiders all know that Oak Grove is more than just Oak Grove when talking about the controversial topic of incorporation.

A group called Friends of Local Control has wanted to incorporate the areas of Oak Grove, Jennings Lodge and Oatfield, although they’ve never gotten so far as to draw boundaries. However, the area in question is roughly the area served by the Oak Lodge Water District and last we heard, residents surveyed wanted little to do with incorporation and any new city fees that would bring.

Let’s flesh out the estimated population of this city-in-waiting. According to the Census, Jennings Lodge had a population of 7,315 in 2010 and Oatfield had a population of 13,415. Add them all up, and a proposed city would have 37,359 residents. (This is the most recent year available for unincorporated census areas.)

The largest city in Clackamas County is Lake Oswego, with 36,619 people in 2010 and an estimated 37,046in 2011, according to the U.S. Census. Oregon City, the county seat, had an estimated 32,500 people in 2012, compared with 36,770 for Lake Oswego. (The 2012 estimates are by Portland State University.)

So the bottom line is that a new city of Oak Grove, Jennings Lodge and Oatfield would rival Lake Oswego as the most populous city in Clackamas County. Lehan is on the right track with that claim, if you keep in mind that Oak Grove is a sort of shorthand for a larger area.

Now, what about the claim that the area in question is "one of the largest cities in Oregon?" Let’s look at the large-ish cities we do have, according to Portland State’s 2012 calculations and 2011 Census estimates.  

Featured Fact-check

  July 2012 PSU July 2011 Census Portland 587,865 593,820 Eugene 158,335 156,929 Salem 156,455 156,244 Gresham 105,970 107,439 Hillsboro 92,550 93,455 Beaverton 91,205 91,625 Bend 77,455 77,905 Medford 75,545 75,501 Springfield 59,840 59,695 Corvallis 55,055 54,674

Lake Oswego ranks No. 13 in both columns.

Lehan said in an email to PolitiFact Oregon that she was referring to the "unincorporated, generally contiguous area that includes Clackamas, Jennings Lodge, Oak Grove, Oak Lodge, Oatfield and other neighboring neighborhoods." She estimates the total population at "nearly 40,000, putting it slightly ahead of Lake Oswego." (Oak Lodge Water commissioner Jim Knapp, who disapproves of incorporation, does not contest her number.)

She also said that there are 242 incorporated cities in Oregon. A mythical new city of Oak Grove would be 13th or 14th.  "If it were anywhere in the top 15, or even the top 20, out of 242 cities I would not consider it to be inaccurate to say it is among Oregon's largest cities," she wrote.  

We can see her point of view. On the other hand, Oregon is a state of small towns and cities, so it’s not that hard to crack the top 20. According to Portland State, 214 of 242 cities are under 20,000 people.

Lehan said in her exit interview that Oak Grove "should be up there with Gresham and Beaverton and Hillsboro and they aren't." Maybe Oak Grove should be a bigger power player in the tri-county region, but population-wise, it’s simply not on par with the Washington County cities of Hillsboro or Beaverton, or Gresham in east Multnomah County. And really, Oak Grove pales next to the 49,425 residents in the unincorporated "census designated place" of Aloha in Washington County.

Where does that leave us ruling-wise? Well, we understand that Lehan was speaking with a county readership in mind, using geographic shorthand to describe an issue familiar to some people in Clackamas County. But it’s our job to rate statements for a general readership.

First, estimates show that a new Oak Grove city would rival Lake Oswego for the honor of largest city in Clackamas County, but we don’t have an apples to apples count. The most recent numbers for the pretend city is from 2010, and a population count would depend on the precision of new boundaries.

Second, if incorporated, the city would land in the top 15 most populous cities in Oregon -- but the statement is missing information on just how small it would be compared with other large cities. The cities she names -- Beaverton, Gresham and Hillsboro -- are twice the size.

Third, Oak Grove itself has fewer than 20,000 people. Words matter to PolitiFact Oregon and here, she didn’t spell out the larger geographical area.

We rate Lehan’s statement Half True. It is partially accurate but leaves out a cumulation of important details.

Our Sources

The Oregonian, "Exit interview: Charlotte Lehan says Clackamas County future depends on incorporating Oak Grove,"  Jan. 8, 2013
The Oregonian, "Oak Grove incorporation not on near horizon, according to Friends of Local Control survey," July 20, 2011
The Oregonian, "Ready for a new city? Residents probe area between Milwaukie and Gladstone for an answer," Dec. 24, 2010
Friends of Local Control (boundaries)
Email from Charlotte Lehan, Jan. 18, 2013
Portland State University, College of Urban & Public Affairs: Population Research Center
U.S. Census Bureau
Email from Charles Rynerson, Population Research Center, Portland State University-PRC, Jan. 23, 2013
Interview with Jim Knapp, Jan. 28, 2013
Interview with William Wild, president of Friends of Local Control, Jan. 28, 2013

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