Some state governments try planning from top down


Note: this feature article is one of several in a special issue about growth and planning in the West.

The governor of Oregon may have been a little ahead of his time, speaking out against growth and for planning:

"Sagebrush subdivision, 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," warned the governor. "We are in dire need of a state land use policy, new subdivision laws, and new standards for planning and zoning by cities and counties. The interest of Oregon for today and in the future must be protected from the grasping wastrels of the land."

So said Oregon Governor Tom McCall 21 years ago. Later that year, McCall signed into law one of the most far-reaching land-use planning strategies ever attempted, beginning a process that has been watched and emulated by states throughout the country. In a grand experiment, Oregon was using the authority of state government to require local communities to plan their growth and development.

Oregon's law, which requires every county and municipality to write land-use plans that meet state standards, has not been an unqualified success. Among its ambitious goals are the protection of agricultural lands and open space and provision for affordable housing and adequate transportation. The state law hasn't stopped newcomers from pouring in, and Oregon's counties still allow the subdivision of agricultural lands. But experts agree the law has kept Oregon's cities from sprawling into the countryside.

To limit sprawl, the state looks 20 years ahead and projects reasonable population growth for cities and towns, which then must designate urban growth boundaries based on the projections. The boundaries tend to result in denser development within cities and towns, and less paving over of farm lands.

"Since 1973, we've cut the amount of agricultural land being converted to urban use from 30,000 acres a year to 2,000 acres a year," says Kevin Kasowski, communication director for 1000 Friends of Oregon, a group that formed in 1975 to monitor implementation of the state law. "Oregon just doesn't have the leapfrog development- the Wal-Marts going up outside urban areas - like you do in other states."

Despite the successes, some counties and towns, especially in the rural eastern part of the state, have balked. Finding allies in the real estate industry and the state legislature, rural interests tried to gut the planning law with ballot initiatives in 1976, 1978, and 1982. Voters statewide solidly rejected each attempt.

The pattern of rebellion has been repeated more recently in Washington state, where secession movements have erupted in some rural counties in reaction to a statewide planning law (see story next page).

In Oregon, some counties took a decade to draw up comprehensive plans, despite the threat of the state withholding their share of state revenues. Even now, Kasowski says, counties often approve rural subdivisions that run counter to the law's intent.

"People in farming and forestry zones are building single houses that don't have anything to do with agriculture," says Kasowski. "That's where counties do the worst. It's hard for them to say no." A combination of fairly vague standards and an uninformed public allows the problem to continue, he adds.

Strengthening public awareness, 1000 Friends of Oregon has spent the last three years organizing and training local residents around the state on the ins and outs of the planning law. So far, citizens' groups have formed in two counties - Jackson and Deschutes - to watchdog local officials.

Kasowski says state land-use laws like Oregon's can help communities better direct growth, but there is an irony - better planning winds up attracting more newcomers. In fact, statewide planning has made the state's cities more attractive than ever. "If you want to stay small," says Kasowski, "don't look at Oregon."

Other states in the West can still look to the Oregon model for effective planning strategies, Kasowski says. "Urban growth boundaries are something that should have happened along Colorado's Front Range 20 years ago."

Tradition of individualism in Colorado

Two decades ago, about the time Oregon was drawing up its law, Colorado took a half-hearted step in the same direction of state-directed planning. Led by then-state representative Dick Lamm, D, the Colorado legislature created a state land-use commission to help rapidly growing areas plan for large-scale development. But concessions to legislators opposed to planning and a diminishing budget in the years that followed meant the commission never had the authority to fulfill its mission, says Lamm, who later served as Colorado's governor from 1975-1987.

"We never got out of the box," says Lamm. "The political culture wasn't right. Oregon has a tradition of solving problems. We have a tradition of individualism."

Lamm says he blames himself for Colorado's failure to grapple with growth. "Instead of talking about how to accommodate growth, I talked about stopping it. I made growth the enemy, instead of unplanned growth," he says. "I wish I could live those years over."

In Colorado, Front Range environmentalists recently formed a familiar-sounding group, 1000 Friends of Colorado, hoping to generate momentum for a state planning law. One of the group's founders, Boulder attorney John Spitzer, says explosive growth throughout the state is changing the political climate.

"The public consciousness is much higher now," says Spitzer, "but the politicians are still five years behind the person on the street."

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