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Know the West

In Oregon, a lesson learned the hard way


Washington has apples. Colorado has football and hockey. Oregon? We have land-use laws. It’s what built our state’s reputation. Planning textbooks often feature a chapter on Oregon, and environmentalists and land-use planners throughout the West look longingly toward our state Legislature in Salem; it’s the place where smart people put a cap on sprawl.

That was before Nov. 2, when Oregonians questioned their resolve to be sprawl-fighters.

Nearly 60 percent of Oregon voters across rural and urban areas passed a ballot initiative that requires state and local governments to either compensate landowners when environmental or planning laws harm property values, or else to waive the regulations. Written by a property-rights group that has worked for years to dismantle land-use laws, the measure provides no funding mechanism for processing claims or for the estimated billions of dollars in compensation that could be due.

In a state that can’t cough up enough money for public schools, it’s safe to assume that cash-strapped local governments will have no choice but to let land-use laws lie fallow. Already, some county and city governments, anticipating the measure’s passage, have put the brakes on large planning projects.

According to planning advocates, Oregonians did not know what they were voting for. They identified with landowners wanting compensation for decreased property values. They sympathized with rural landowners who complained that strict planning regulations meant they couldn’t build a home for their children on their own land.

Yet, most of us living in Oregon’s cities benefit from land-use controls. I can drive 15 miles outside Portland and see forests and farmland. Our urban growth boundaries, while far from perfect, rein in sprawl. It’s why so many of us have moved here and why those of us raised in the Northwest choose to stay. But while we enjoy this lovely landscape, many of us have no idea how the system works.

Utter the terms "urban growth boundary," "land-use planning" or "transit-oriented development" at a social gathering, and see how many people want to talk to you.

This measure passed because Oregon is a different place than it was 30 years ago, when the governor and state Legislature protected rural areas from urban encroachment. Born with huge public support and built with grassroots spirit through 15 months of public meetings, our original land-use laws truly reflected what Oregonians wanted their landscape to look like.

It’s different today. Many voters — retirees, California refugees, young urbanites — weren’t around for the original conversation. Planners and environmentalists, distracted by efforts to protect the land-use laws from property-rights activists, didn’t listen when rural people complained that those laws weren’t working for them — and they neglected to educate the rest of us about why land-use laws are necessary. We didn’t care to learn how planning keeps taxes low and the views majestic. When planning advocates tried to convince voters through letters to the editor, public forums and cable TV, it was too little, too late.

Now, the leadership to salvage the remnants of our land-use laws must come from state legislators, who are at the mercy of public opinion. Gov. Ted Kulongoski and the editorial pages of our two biggest newspapers have called for lawmakers to reform the measure by limiting payouts to landowners and eliminating a retroactivity clause, which would allow claims originating decades ago. Whatever they come up with, it won’t be easy. This is a complicated system; simple laws such as this initiative only create more headaches.

Slow-growth advocates throughout the West watched this initiative very closely, and many now voice despair at the news of Oregon’s crippled system.

"It’s heartbreaking," says Dennis Glick of the Sonoran Institute, a nonprofit group that helps communities plan for growth. "Oregon has inspired me because I’ve seen how well land-use laws work there. If its own citizens refuse to recognize the benefits, I fear for the future of our Western landscapes."

Maybe stopping sprawl is an impossible goal. Maybe we’re destined to trade farmland for strip malls and subdivisions. Maybe the West has only remained beautiful and open and vast in some places because there were fewer of us to muck it up.

I hope this vote in Oregon serves as a bright red flare, reminding the West of what’s at stake. We mustn’t forget to tell people how regulation helps protect rural areas from strip development. We mustn’t dismiss rural people as a conservative minority. When we take what we have for granted, it can be lost.

Rebecca Clarren writes in Portland, Oregon.