Ballot-box democracy

  • Paul Larmer

  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 inevitable approval.

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.

But 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.