These are wild and radical times in parts of the "conservative" West. It’s not big news that property rights are a powerful issue, or that plenty of Westerners would like to expand them. But the current discourse leaves you wondering if there’s room left for any balancing values.
That’s especially true in my state after Oregon voters approved a "takings" measure last November that will, depending on who you talk to, limit or decimate the state’s trail-blazing 30-year-old land-use planning system. Measure 37 says that if any governmental action has reduced the market value of your property since any family member — parent, grandparent, spouse, cousin, aunt, uncle, brother, sister, in-law or others — purchased it, you are entitled to a permit to do anything with the property that was possible before the action, or compensation from government for the reduced value.
With Oregon’s public treasuries bare, compensation isn’t a real option. But commercial development is of vast tracts of previously protected Oregon forest and farmland. Three months after the election, we’re still arguing over how significantly this will change the face of Oregon.
I could give you my take on all the damage and all the regrets that lie ahead for this state. I could lay out the unsurprising details of how a handful of Oregon’s biggest corporate landowners and developers financed a Yes-on-37 advertising blitz. The blitz featured frail and forlorn seniors whose simple life-long dreams were crushed by heartless bureaucrats.
None of that would change the fact that for every two voters seeing it my way, there were three who didn’t.
Does this new law bring us to a truly radical moment in Oregon history? I wasn’t sure until I heard the conversation surrounding the Legislature’s post-election task of sorting through and implementing the measure’s details. Recently, one legislator, who falls somewhere in the ideological middle of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, said, "This arrogant attitude by the state that we will dictate what you shall do with your property has to cease."
There’s a word for the arrogant attitude he’s talking about: zoning. It doesn’t work flawlessly — there are isolated cases in which it’s been unfair — but it’s been the basis for what we thought was a settled agreement on how we’re going to live together in the growing cities and counties of the West. Now, in a spasm of political rhetoric and reaction, all bets seem to be off.
Let’s take a deep breath and think about this. A cornerstone of modern civilization has been the balancing of the individual’s rights to use his or her property as the owner sees fit, and the community’s rights to protect quality of life for the rest of us. It’s part of the Social Contract. The West came to this contract a little late because we started out with so much open space.
Chest-thumping by ambitious politicians aside, very few of us challenge the notion that both the property owner and those who live around him or her are entitled to some rights. The real-world question is where to set the balance.
The loudest political voices in most of our states are saying that the balance has to be pulled harder towards personal property rights, and they’re going to continue to ask voters to agree with them. They’ll find more attractive everyday-looking people to stare into television cameras and sadly share their government-imposed hardships.
It’s time to apply to these claims the skepticism that most of us have developed toward government. Let’s ask who’s paying to broadcast these television messages and who the big winners are when we further weaken land-use regulations. There’s a defining question to ask: Which seems a greater threat to the quality of life you want for yourselves and your children in years to come? Is it the oppressive restrictions of government bureaucrats, or the traffic, noise, air quality, health and public safety impacts of developments that are sited on the basis of maximizing profits rather than blending into communities?
In the midst of complex public-policy battles, it’s natural to wonder who and what to trust. In this case, all of us who are coping with the impacts of growing communities have as much expertise as the professionals who produce the political TV spots. Maybe we should start trusting ourselves.
Jeff Golden is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the author of the new book, As If We Were Grownups>, and lives in Ashland, Oregon.
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