A few years ago, my hometown got a taste of the rancor that often comes with growth and development in the West these days.
A local businessman wanted to build a
subdivision on some hay pastures outside Paonia’s city
limits, in an area the town’s comprehensive plan had
identified as important for its agricultural value. The firmly
"pro-growth" town council quickly annexed the property, and, within
days, the subdivision plans were headed for what seemed like
But, as so often happens when one
side overreaches, another side suddenly appeared. Neighboring
property owners and slow-growth advocates coalesced into a feisty
new organization with a feistier agenda: passing a ballot measure
overturning the annexation. It was a contentious, mud-slinging
battle, but the ballot measure passed. For now, the hay pasture is
still a hay pasture.
Such "ballot-box planning" has
become the rage in the West because citizens are tired of endless
growth, and distrustful of elected officials. At a recent
conference sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute in
Denver, I discovered that between 1994 and 2002, in Colorado alone,
communities have voted on hundreds of citizen-initiated measures,
seeking to restrict annexations, impose "growth caps" and
development moratoriums, and challenge specific developments.
Developers have countered with their own political
strategies. At the conference, I heard from a small army of lawyers
and lobbyists, who make a nice living helping developers push
projects through resistant town councils while avoiding the ballot
box. They advised developers: "If a project appears to be
potentially controversial, consider using focus groups and polling.
Define your project before your opponents define it for you. Use
the ‘community process’ as a strategic tool, not simply
as a necessary evil that you need to ‘get through.’ "
And this final bit: "The days of simply knowing the local
city councilman are over because, increasingly, securing official
approval of your entitlement is not the last step in the process."
This advice has been well heeded by the gargantuan retail
king, Wal-Mart, as it marches through every moderately sized human
hamlet in the country, driving local businesses under and replacing
living wages with just-barely-minimum ones. As Portland, Ore.,
writer Tim Sullivan notes in this issue’s cover story,
Wal-Mart has taken ballot-box planning a step further, creating its
own initiatives in order to topple the legal walls erected by
locals to keep big-box stores at bay.
This is an ominous
trend for any community that wants to shape its own future.
Wal-Mart and other big developers can easily hire the best PR firms
and lawyers to shape public opinion, and lure officials with
promises of throngs of consumers and tax riches.
increasingly, locals are seeing through the propaganda, and
deciding that the "always low prices" come at too high a cost. So
far, the victories have been few, however, and if there are to be
more, activists will need all the creativity and coalition-building
skills they can muster. Only an army of enlightened citizens can
derail corporate America from the de-humanizing path it is blazing
through our communities.