November Surprise

  • Greg Hanscom

  If it seems like we’re yelling at you with this issue’s big cover headline, well, we are. If you read only one thing this summer, make it Ray Ring’s cover story, "Taking Liberties," which starts on page 8. Then pass it on to a friend, and tell her to do the same.

Ray’s story gets under the surface of a Westwide campaign that has received scant attention from the regional press, considering that it could literally lay waste to state and local land-use planning. Sure, there have been scattered stories about one or another of the ballot initiatives in this campaign, but no one has traced the campaign to its libertarian funders in Chicago, New York City and Washington, D.C. No one has documented how this money pays out-of-state signature gatherers to put the initiatives on the ballot. And few have seen through the sales pitch — which often says that a vote for these initiatives is a vote to rein in the government’s power to take people’s land — and found that the real agenda is much, much bigger.

There’s no denying that it’s a brilliant strategy. Libertarians have tried for years to push "takings" legislation through state legislatures, and they’ve discovered that it’s all but impossible; look closely at "takings," and you realize that the real goal is unraveling government. So they’ve found a way to take the issue directly to the voters, who often don’t have the time to consider the details. With a campaign driven by TV sound bites, they know they can win. Just look at Oregon, where voters blithely approved the mother of all takings initiatives in 2004: Measure 37.

In the aftermath of Measure 37, Defenders of Wildlife commissioned a study to find out why planning advocates lost. The study found that the measure’s backers cast the story as a "David vs. Goliath" tale, in which the big bad government was stomping on the little landowners. The report suggested that opponents should have turned the tables with tales of land-use regs saving ordinary people from developers who want to build Wal-Marts, cookie-cutter subdivisions or gravel mines next door.

Telling good stories is key in this fight — and if supporters of land-use planning want to have a chance in November, they’d better start telling those stories now. But Measure 37 carried another lesson: The problem in Oregon wasn’t just the sometimes overbearing regulations; the problem was that planners had stopped listening to the people.

A study penned by a team of academics in the wake of Oregon planners’ first big defeat at the ballot box — Measure 7, which passed in 2000, but was later thrown out by the state Supreme Court — found that the measure passed because of misunderstandings, misinformation and frustration with the planning bureaucracy. It recommended that the state expand education programs, streamline the planning process and address the ubiquitous concern that the planning system wasn’t benefiting all Oregonians equally.

That never happened. Four years later, Measure 37 passed by an even larger margin than Measure 7 — and this time, Oregon’s Supreme Court stood behind it. Now, some of the most visionary land-use regulations in the country have been rendered powerless.

If we want to have any hope of creating progressive land-use planning systems, our first task is to knock back the initiatives on state ballots this year. And over the long term, we need to recognize that the key to land-use planning is listening, listening some more, and then creating and re-creating land-use systems that really work for people. Good planning is the messy stuff of democracy — and without it, stealth, sound-bite campaigns can turn things upside-down.