Op-ed: Reckless laws endanger land use


Last November, Oregon passed Measure 37, creating a process by which property owners can receive monetary compensation for any action government takes to prevent unlimited development. Oregon’s Measure 37 is inspiring advocates of runaway growth to develop similar ballot measures in other states that manage growth and protect livability, including Washington.

The measure’s surprising passage in Oregon highlights the need to refocus on how growth management protects property owners here in Washington. Land-use planning must be preserved, not weakened or stripped, to ensure the quality of life that Washingtonians have come to expect.

Measure 37’s passage, with more than 60 percent of the Oregon vote, was assured by some reasonable-sounding language and compelling stories. “Governments must pay owners, or forgo enforcement, when certain land-use restrictions reduce property value,” read the measure’s ballot title. Behind this seemingly positive language lay a legal nightmare.

As a result of the measure, protected rural and resource land is at risk for development. In Hood River County in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge, a pear-growing family is seeking permission to turn their prime agricultural land into an 842-house subdivision or be compensated $57 million for their “reduced” property value.

A frail, elderly woman seeking to subdivide her forested acreage for development by her children was at the forefront of the proponents’ media blitz. However, former U.S. Rep. Les AuCoin believes that Measure 37 was “never about the welfare of a kindly city-dwelling 91-year-old woman. It was always about gutting a state land-use planning program that has prized farmland over subdivisions and compact cities over California-styled sprawl.”

The passage of Measure 37 has created “inequity and unfairness” that Bob Stacey, executive director of 1000 Friends of Oregon, equates with giving “a privileged class of property owners special rights — immunity from the community zoning safeguards on which their neighbors depend.” The group even suggests that such special privileges may be unconstitutional, a claim that Oregon courts will review in coming months.

While much of the public debate in Oregon focused on government takings, few have acknowledged the property value increases resulting from government actions that preserve quality of life, as well as public investment in infrastructure and services. Sad to say, extremist property rights advocates see land-use planning as a one-way street — they do not propose that property owners compensate the government for these “government givings” that increase property value. The so-called property rights movement is really about special benefits for a small group of large landowners — not about protecting the property of most homeowners, who will get nothing from the new law.

With new threats to Washington’s famed quality of life, we must protect the state’s Growth Management Act from such challenges as Measure 37. The GMA is a 1990 law resulting from concern about rapid population growth, increasingly sprawling cities and degradation of farmland and natural resource areas.

Examples abound in Washington of cities and counties using the GMA and other growth management tools to both encourage strong economic growth and protect our environment from runaway sprawl. Redmond has created the popular and walkable mixed-use Redmond Town Center. Tacoma is using growth management to revitalize its downtown core and preserve its historic character. Sumner has implemented design guidelines and incentives to create family-friendly neighborhoods centered on parks and an elementary school.

Strong public policies are a necessity to preserve our quality of life as Washington’s population continues to grow. Through continuous adaptation and improvement, Washington can continue as a model for the rest of the country in promoting livability and managing growth, instead of following our neighbors to the south on a dangerous road that will harm economic competitiveness and the environment.

We need to build on the successes of places like Redmond, Tacoma and Sumner — not endanger them through reckless laws such as Measure 37.

C.J. Gabbe of Seattle is a production editor of The Next American City, a quarterly magazine about the ongoing transformation of America’s cities and suburbs, available online at www.americancity.org.