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Old West guns down growth initiatives


Well, so much for the great land-use greening of 2000. Colorado and Arizona's bold citizen initiatives to toughen their states' growth-management rules both went down in flames.

Colorado's Amendment 24 rode high all summer, but support for the proposed constitutional amendment to require towns to map future growth and obtain voter approval for changes fell to earth faster than the aspen leaves. An even more abrupt slide overtook the Arizona Sierra Club's Proposition 202 to impose a statewide system of urban growth boundaries on most cities and towns. Once again, a stab at rethinking the growth game that sounded interesting in summer has wound up out of the question in November.

Which is depressing, and not because either of the defeated measures seemed likely to solve this region's growth problems. Rigid and confrontational, neither item addressed the fundamental causes of sprawl as it draws its line on the land. And both embraced a brand of "ballot-box zoning" that would likely have turned city planning into a crude sales game. In that sense, neither measure is a great loss.

What is depressing is the brute evidence that the much-vaunted New West remains, in many respects, just like the discredited Old West. In a word, the boosters and boomers still rule, the frontier cant of exaggerated private rights and growth at all cost still dominates, and the honchos still won't countenance a disparaging word.

It's all too familiar. In Colorado, the "No on 24" campaign amassed a cool $5.7 million to push the old buttons of personal freedom and onerous government infringement. In Arizona, the developers gathered $4.3 million, shouting that the state's economy would unravel should Prop. 202's regulations go into place (even though its threat of 1 million lost jobs over 10 years was later shown to be a gross exaggeration of possible declines of new jobs, rather than loss of existing ones).

The slogans played on old fears, and by Election Day it was 1890 again. Pretty soon, two key states' transition to a new politics based on stewardship and quality of life began to seem vastly overstated.

Once again, the West's traditional mistrust of government and cult of private-property rights seems destined to bog down future problem-solving. Once again, the region seems stuck at an impasse, unable to hold a civil discussion about growth. And this is a shame, because it's exactly this gridlock that has choked the Denver area with traffic and ensured that the urban edge in Phoenix is now advancing into the desert at one-half mile a year.

What will it take to change this state of affairs? One answer might be: even worse messes. It may be that only catastrophic air pollution requiring federal sanctions (such as drove reform in Atlanta), or the loss of major corporate tenants due to quality-of-life concerns (as have hit home in Houston and Austin), will galvanize local power structures to get serious about responding to growth's problems.

A genuine greening could well result from recognition by the big boys that overcrowded schools, traffic chaos and sprawl are big turn-offs to the Intels and Microsofts of the world. There's nothing like being snubbed by Cisco Systems to start the talks in earnest.

And that suggests another key to moving forward: Progress will clearly require collaboration. The single most successful attempt to comprehensively channel growth, Oregon's statewide land-use plan, did not come out of adversarialism, or by a citizens' initiative. It grew out of 13 years of community and statewide negotiation that ultimately achieved significant "buy-in" from a Republican governor and large portions of the development community.

To be sure, conservative Arizona and iconoclastic Colorado may be less likely venues for such a convergence. But the significant progress toward collaborative reform on display in places like Austin and Atlanta holds out the hope of grand parlays on the West's growth problems.

It would be a mistake to consider serious growth management down for the count in the Intermountain West. Still, the lopsided fights over Proposition 202 and Amendment 24 do not inspire optimism. Here's hoping the region will soon grow a politics equal to its problems.

Here's knowing it hasn't happened yet.

Mark Muro is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). He is senior research analyst at The Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University.

Copyright 2000 HCN and Mark Muro