Voters say yes to elk, no to takings, jets

  • "No airplanes" logo


In state and local elections Nov. 7, environmental initiatives followed the law of the pocketbook: Measures that would have cost taxpayers money usually failed.

Although fiscal conservatism spelled defeat for slow-growth initiatives in Colorado and Utah, it also contributed to a major victory for environmentalists in Washington state, where voters defeated Referendum 48 - the most extreme state takings legislation to date.

Had the referendum passed, it would have allowed landowners to seek compensation for even slight losses in property values due to any state regulation other than preventing a public nuisance (HCN, 5/29/95). One study estimated the legislation would have cost local governments up to $11 billion in compensation, and that cities would have been forced to either spend roughly 10 percent of their budget to implement the measure or abandon land-use regulations to avoid lawsuits.

It was a major victory for Washington environmentalists, who scrambled to collect 231,000 signatures to bring the takings referendum, passed last year by the state legislature, up for a statewide vote. A week before the election, polls had predicted a victory for property rights advocates, who outspent the opposition by 2 to 1.

Ed Zuckerman of the Washington Environmental Political Action Committee says the most surprising news was that the vote didn't split along rural-urban lines. Even rural areas like Snohomish and Whatcom counties, considered leaders in the property rights debate, defeated the referendum by roughly 60 percent.

The trump card for referendum opponents was the argument that developers and timber companies would profit far more than the small property owner, says Zuckerman. "The thought of hard-earned taxpayer money going right into the coffers of shopping-mall developers really galled people," he says.

Although supporters are sure to push for some kind of state takings bill later this year, Zuckerman believes regulatory reform will take the place of compensation-based legislation. "I think we're going to see a move away from takings."

Environmentalists in Washington were also pleased with the defeat of an initiative backed by the sport-fishing industry. It would have effectively banned all non-tribal gillnet fishing throughout the state. Opponents say Initiative 640, nicknamed "Save Our Sea Life," only diverted attention from the real problems affecting Washington's endangered salmon runs: habitat loss and dammed rivers. They argued that the commercial fishing industry would have taken an unnecessary hit to boost sports fishing.

Another "no" vote in Washington squelched development dreams of Indian tribes hoping to expand Washington state's $2.7 billion gambling industry. Although many tribes in Washington already run casinos, Initiative 651 would have allowed "unrestricted and unregulated" gambling on reservations. In exchange, Washington residents would have received 10 percent of casino profits in the form of annual checks. A spokesman for Lt. Gov. Joel Pritchard, who opposed the measure, says "most people don't want to open the gambling door that much." Five Indian tribes in Washington funded I-651; nine other tribes opposed it.

The only successful Washington ballot initiative increased the authority of a nine-person Fish and Wildlife Commission to regulate the state fish and wildlife department. Now the commission, rather than the governor, will choose the state director. It will also have authority over salmon, shellfish and commercial fishing. Hunting and sport fishing groups backed the referendum, environmentalists were split on the issue and the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission opposed it, fearing a return of a "good old boys' network.

In Colorado and Utah, voters faced ballots crowded with measures to limit growth. Because of slick campaigns funded by local businesses, realtors and resort companies, environmentalists weren't surprised to find two slow-growth initiatives in Utah and some 20 others in Colorado soundly defeated. Opponents in both states spent lavish amounts to convince residents that growth limitations spelled economic decline.

Since residents of Boulder, Colo., first passed open space measures in 1959, the town has consistently worked to preserve its small-town amenities. But this year Boulder turned down a Slow Growth! initiative which would have limited both residential and commercial growth and forced builders to pay higher impact fees. The city council recently passed a weaker growth ordinance, which detracted support from the initiative, says Slow Growth! supporter Steven Pomerance. Realtors and businesses outspent supporters 8 to 1, he adds.

Proponents of slow growth in St. George, Utah, one of the state's fastest-growing towns, also confronted well-financed opposition. Opponents spent more than $100,000 to persuade residents that limits to growth would translate into lost jobs. "A lot of people are here because of construction," says County Commission Chairman Gayle Aldred.

But according to former judge Robert F. Owens, builders are already subsidized since they pay an impact fee that is only 75 percent of the recommended amount. "It would really have affected decisions if people had been able to hear arguments on both sides," says Owens. "But they swamped us, with most of the local power structure - city council, chamber of commerce - lined up for their side."

Meanwhile, Aspen and Fairplay in rural Colorado said no on issues involving growth. Aspen residents trounced a proposal backed by resort and business organizations to expand the airport runway to accommodate 737 airplanes.

The issue, heralded as crucial to Aspen's future, drew 49 percent of registered voters to the polls - an impressive off-year turnout. Proponents argued that increased airport service would take cars off dangerous winter highways. Aspen needs to provide tourists with more options, the president of the Aspen/Snowmass Retailers' Association Steve DeGouveia told the Aspen Times, "It's survival. Greed isn't a factor."

Aspen resident and gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson said that upscale Aspen didn't need to court more tourists or pad the pockets of "absentee landlord scum."

Fifty miles from Aspen, the unglitzy town of Fairplay was targeted for a regional airport to serve four nearby ski areas, but residents of Park County - already the ninth fastest growing county in the country - voted no on the initiative that would have transferred 3,296 acres of Bureau of Land Management land to a private corporation for airport development.

In Montana, open space backers triumphed when Missoula voters backed a $5 million bond to protect elk corridors on nearby Mt. Jumbo. Open space organizer Ron Erickson says city voters felt a new sense of urgency. Bond efforts failed twice before, but had this bond been defeated, winter elk habitat could have become Elk Estates, a development of 300 new homes.

The morning after the vote, the elk herd returned to the mountain for its first seasonal visit to winter habitat, grazing above a white smiley face constructed by open-space advocates out of bedsheets donated by local hotels.

Finally, in Tucson, Ariz., a city vote approved an initiative governing the use of water from the Central Arizona Project (CAP). The successful initiative prohibits the use of CAP water for city homes for five years, or until the water can be treated to match the quality of the city's groundwater. Because groundwater supplies are limited, some environmentalists say the initiative could become a tool to slow the city's rapid growth.

Marga Lincoln in Missoula, Montana, contributed to this report.

High Country News Classifieds