Ballot box hangover

by Randy Stapilus

Libertarian activists are pushing ballot measures that would undermine land-use planning in seven Western states this year. Meanwhile, in Oregon, political leaders are trying to mend the damage done by the law that inspired those new initiatives.

Measure 37, passed by Oregon voters in 2004, allows some property owners to challenge limitations placed on the use of their land. To date, landowners have filed claims demanding more than $1 billion in damages from state and local governments. Unable to pay, governments have, in almost every case, opted to waive the rules instead. Oregon’s land-use planning system, once the strongest in the nation, is in limbo.

At the same time, an ambitious effort to revive state land-use laws has been running mostly under the radar. It evolved from an agreement between Gov. Ted Kulongoski and Senate President Peter Courtney, both Democrats, and House Speaker Karen Minnis, R. Created by the Legislature in 2005, the Oregon Task Force on Land Use Planning is charged with creating a new road map for the state’s land use-planning system. It’s a project commonly called "the Big Look."

The task force has held a handful of public meetings to identify major concerns. According to Becky Steckler of the state Department of Land Conservation and Development, it will spend the fall researching these issues, and hold "a public conversation" about possible solutions in 2007.

Nohad Toulan, dean emeritus of the Portland State University School of Urban and Public Affairs, says he’s "guardedly optimistic." Toulan headed a group of academics and planners that, in 1999, scrutinized Oregon’s land-use planning. They found that the system had become autocratic, and blind to the realities of change. The authors urged planners to return to the kind of public outreach common in the early 1970s, when an estimated 100,000 Oregonians helped develop the original land-use rules.

With the Big Look, state leaders may finally be heeding that advice. The final report is due in 2009.

The author writes from Carlton, Oregon.

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