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December 21, 2004

Oregon Election a Smart Growth Backlash? Maybe Not

One of the many unpleasant November defeats for progressives was the passage of Oregon's Measure 37, which lets landowners sue if they think Smart Growth regulations reduced their property value. Anti-Smart Growth commentators around the country hailed its passage as a sign -- if voters are slamming Smart Growth in green-friendly Oregon, the game is up.

Not so fast says David Goldberg:

In Oregon, nothing on the ballot repealed planning or environmental laws; in truth, every past measure expressly aimed at doing so has failed. There was no referendum in which voters chose "sprawl" over "smart growth." Oregonians didn't even vote to eliminate the vaunted urban growth boundaries around their metro areas.

What 60 percent of voters did was to approve Measure 37, whose brilliantly worded ballot title read: "Governments must pay owners, or forgo enforcement, when certain land-use restrictions reduce property value." It certainly sounds fair; in fact, the wonder is that passage wasn't more lopsided.

Amazingly, though, 40 percent of the voters saw through the wording and realized that the corporate land speculators and anti-planning activists who sponsored the measure had something up their sleeve. That something was this: The law is retroactive to 30 years ago....

It's very hard to read this as a vote of no confidence in the land-planning system. In fact, focus groups and polls indicated that few people readily understood the connection, a reality that cost the opposition dearly. Some have cast the vote as a rural backlash against urban-based environmentalists, but the fair-sounding language had appeal in both rural and urban areas. In Portland's Multnomah County, voters not only passed Measure 37 but also sent a strong pro-planning message by replacing an incumbent on Metro, the nation's only elected metro-wide council, with Robert Liberty, who ran on his long support for Smart Growth principles.

Indeed, opinion research and other voting results indicate that Oregonians desire passionately to keep their state clean, green, and well planned. But the Measure 37 vote shows that they want their system to be as fair to individual property owners as it can be. Those values are in no way mutually exclusive, and both are enormously important.

It sounds like what we had was a failure to communicate. Progressives didn't figure out how to get across the message that if voters wanted to make the process a bit more fair, 37 wasn't going to get the job done.

37's passage also might be a sign that the Smart Growth movement needs to get smarter about how it talks about the government and property values (frames anyone?).

For example, let's say there hadn't been any Smart Growth laws in Oregon. How many landowners would've had their property values injured by the fact that everything green near their property would've been paved over? Or the fact that building owners in existing cities would've seen their utlities go up to pay for new service for growth further out?

For that matter, every time the state decides to build a road, mass transit stop, government complex, etc. in one place, it increases property values where they're building while not increasing them elsewhere (this is why developers give _lots_ of money to local politicians). Are we going to pay the losers here too?

Also, whatever happened to all that bold entrepreneurial risk-taking free market cheerleaders talk about? If someone bought land assuming that they'd be able to make a profit off it because the future would go one way, why should they get rewarded because they made the wrong bet? What will we do next, subsidize the people who made economic gambles that the Iraq war would be short just like Rummy said it would?

Virtually every time the government acts, there are winners and losers. It's one thing to compensate folks when the losers are truly and unfairly hurt. But 37 wasn't about trying to get a more fair system, it was just pulling a fast one on the voters.

Posted by RalphTaylor at December 21, 2004 06:12 PM