Terrible choices now confront the people of Oregon


On Nov. 2, when Oregonians closed the book on the most forward-looking planning law in the nation, they did not just amend a statute, they changed the ethos of a state that had for 30 years celebrated open spaces, greenways and livable communities over development.

And they likely started a copycat war throughout the West against zoning and planning.

The passage of Ballot Measure 37 introduces a novel concept: State and local governments should pay citizens to obey established land-use laws. If cash-strapped governments can’t do so — and few can — those laws must be waived.

So, if a person owns acreage outside the urban-growth boundary of a town and wants to build a strip mall, nothing can stop him from making his contribution to malignant sprawl unless he can shake down the city treasury. A landowner who decides to plop a go-cart track, a car wash or a movie theater on a vacant neighborhood lot can do it — unless the city greases his palm.

Ironically, the ballot measure provides no compensation for a home- or property-owner whose land may lose value because of unregulated development in the neighborhood.

Measure 37 creates a lesser-of-two-evils choice for local and state governments: Either cannibalize services for kids, seniors and police, or stand aside as unbridled development gallops forward. The practical result will be a sprawl-induced increase in automobile mileage and emissions, decaying downtown businesses, and disappearing open space and farmland. But the good times will roll for fast-buck artists who can invest in a second home somewhere far away where they won’t have to look at the mess they created.

When Oregonians passed Measure 37 by a lopsided margin of 60 percent to 40 percent, they signaled that they had become a different people.

Thirty years ago, we Oregonians used laws to promote things we enjoyed in common — open spaces, livable neighborhoods, economically viable downtowns and merchants. We said, "Our home will be different than other states. We will protect our farmland, our open spaces, our neighborhoods and our livability." That was in 1973. It became known as "The Oregon Story."

I was majority leader of the Oregon House at the time. On the morning of Jan.8, a feeling of history in the making filled the House chamber as the legendary Tom McCall, perhaps the most popular governor in Oregon history, stepped to the microphone to address the opening session of the Legislature — and proposed the most sweeping change in land-use laws in the nation.

McCall declared: "Sagebrush subdivisions, coastal ‘condomania’ and the ravenous rampage of suburbia in the Willamette Valley all threaten to mock Oregon’s status as the environmental model for the nation. Oregon … must be protected from grasping wastrels of the land. We must respect another truism: that unlimited and unregulated growth lead inexorably to a lowered quality of life."

It was a time when the environmental movement had emerged as a potent force, Richard Nixon had created the Environmental Protection Agency, and the environment was Topic A in the media.

McCall was a magnetic leader, a lovable progressive Republican who had just inherited a Democrat-controlled Legislature. The combination of a visionary governor and a new, reform-minded legislative majority created a rare alignment of the sun, stars and moon, and the bill, introduced by a Republican state senator, a farmer named Hector McPherson, passed with relative ease.

For the next 31 years, the "grasping wastrels of the land" have largely been held in check. But not any longer, unless next year’s Legislature somehow summons the will to change the law, which may be difficult given Ballot Measure 37’s overwhelming success with voters.

Some commentators have rightly pointed out that McCall’s land-use planning law became inflexible and cumbersome as it was amended through the years. They are also correct that from time to time, it seemed to be enforced with indifference to property owners.

I agree with them when they say that governors and legislators could have addressed the law’s problems but failed to do so. Those officials share the blame for the loss of the law that, more than any other, made Oregon, Oregon.

But the real culprits are the economic interests that backed Measure 37, who stand to make out like bandits from unbridled development — the grasping wastrels who will leave future generations of Oregonians spiritually poorer than their immediate ancestors. Open spaces in Oregon — and throughout the West — may never be the same.

Les AuCoin is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a retired professor of political science, an Ashland, Oregon writer, a former U.S. congressman from Oregon and a former majority leader of the Oregon House of Representatives.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.