Washington has apples. Colorado has football and hockey. Oregon? We have land-use laws. It’s what built our state’s reputation. Planning textbooks often feature a chapter on Oregon, and environmentalists and land-use planners throughout the West look longingly toward our state Legislature in Salem; it’s the place where smart people put a cap on sprawl.
That was before Nov. 2, when Oregonians questioned their
resolve to be sprawl-fighters.
Nearly 60 percent of
Oregon voters across rural and urban areas passed a ballot
initiative that requires state and local governments to either
compensate landowners when environmental or planning laws harm
property values, or else to waive the regulations. Written by a
property-rights group that has worked for years to dismantle
land-use laws, the measure provides no funding mechanism for
processing claims or for the estimated billions of dollars in
compensation that could be due.
In a state that
can’t cough up enough money for public schools, it’s
safe to assume that cash-strapped local governments will have no
choice but to let land-use laws lie fallow. Already, some county
and city governments, anticipating the measure’s passage,
have put the brakes on large planning projects.
to planning advocates, Oregonians did not know what they were
voting for. They identified with landowners wanting compensation
for decreased property values. They sympathized with rural
landowners who complained that strict planning regulations meant
they couldn’t build a home for their children on their own
Yet, most of us living in Oregon’s cities
benefit from land-use controls. I can drive 15 miles outside
Portland and see forests and farmland. Our urban growth boundaries,
while far from perfect, rein in sprawl. It’s why so many of
us have moved here and why those of us raised in the Northwest
choose to stay. But while we enjoy this lovely landscape, many of
us have no idea how the system works.
Utter the terms
"urban growth boundary," "land-use planning" or "transit-oriented
development" at a social gathering, and see how many people want to
talk to you.
This measure passed because Oregon is a
different place than it was 30 years ago, when the governor and
state Legislature protected rural areas from urban encroachment.
Born with huge public support and built with grassroots spirit
through 15 months of public meetings, our original land-use laws
truly reflected what Oregonians wanted their landscape to look
It’s different today. Many voters —
retirees, California refugees, young urbanites —
weren’t around for the original conversation. Planners and
environmentalists, distracted by efforts to protect the land-use
laws from property-rights activists, didn’t listen when rural
people complained that those laws weren’t working for them
— and they neglected to educate the rest of us about why
land-use laws are necessary. We didn’t care to learn how
planning keeps taxes low and the views majestic. When planning
advocates tried to convince voters through letters to the editor,
public forums and cable TV, it was too little, too late.
Now, the leadership to salvage the remnants of our land-use laws
must come from state legislators, who are at the mercy of public
opinion. Gov. Ted Kulongoski and the editorial pages of our two
biggest newspapers have called for lawmakers to reform the measure
by limiting payouts to landowners and eliminating a retroactivity
clause, which would allow claims originating decades ago. Whatever
they come up with, it won’t be easy. This is a complicated
system; simple laws such as this initiative only create more
Slow-growth advocates throughout the West
watched this initiative very closely, and many now voice despair at
the news of Oregon’s crippled system.
heartbreaking," says Dennis Glick of the Sonoran Institute, a
nonprofit group that helps communities plan for growth. "Oregon has
inspired me because I’ve seen how well land-use laws work
there. If its own citizens refuse to recognize the benefits, I fear
for the future of our Western landscapes."
sprawl is an impossible goal. Maybe we’re destined to trade
farmland for strip malls and subdivisions. Maybe the West has only
remained beautiful and open and vast in some places because there
were fewer of us to muck it up.
I hope this vote in
Oregon serves as a bright red flare, reminding the West of
what’s at stake. We mustn’t forget to tell people how
regulation helps protect rural areas from strip development. We
mustn’t dismiss rural people as a conservative minority. When
we take what we have for granted, it can be lost.