by ERIC de PLACE
Speed limits can be annoying. Just last week, I got pulled over for doing 50 in a 40.
It didn’t occur to me at the time, but what I should have told the officer was: “Listen, I’m in a hurry. And if you want me to drive slower so that your town is safer, then you should pay me.”
Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? But that’s the idea behind a rash of ballot measures in the West this November.
There’s one in Arizona called Proposition 207, as well as copycat versions in California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Washington. The details differ from place to place, but they all operate on the same basic principle: If we want property owners to obey the law, then we should pay them. And if we can’t afford to pay them, then we should give them a free pass from the law.
Marching under the banner of “property rights” a group of well-funded activists – especially Americans For Limited Government, from Chicago, and Howard Rich, a New York developer – are backing the six ballot measures.
They’re hoping that Westerners don’t get wise to their racket that would gut protections for property owners and leave communities at the mercy of government by developers – essentially without a say in their own future.
What will happen in Arizona if the Prop. 207 passes? The details will likely get sorted out in court, in a series of expensive lawsuits, because the measure is unclear on a number of key points.
But there is one real-life case study for understanding the results of Proposition 207. It’s Oregon.
Two years ago, voters in Oregon approved Measure 37, the original ballot measure that spawned the six initiatives of 2006. So voters would be wise to look to Oregon to see how well property owners there like it.
Ask Bob and Crystal Vanderzanden what they think of Measure 37. They’re longtime farmers in Washington County, west of Portland, whose farm borders land that’s now slated for suburban subdivisions – a development that will inevitably bring complaints about machinery, spraying and other routine farming practices.
The neighboring land is zoned agricultural, but the county can’t afford to pay the $9.5 million that their neighbor wanted to be paid for not developing. The Vanderzandens are fighting back with a lawsuit of their own.
Or ask Jim and Sandy LeTourneux, a fourth-generation logging family in Oregon’s Coast Range, who own 460 acres of working forest.
They’re proud of their way of life and proud of their stewardship: They’ve twice won awards for wildlife conservation.
The LeTourneuxs don’t like Measure 37, either. Three sides of their property are bordered by land owned by a developer – land that is zoned for forestry. The developer wanted $35 million from the county and because the county couldn’t pay, it was forced to allow him to build as many as 848 houses, increasing the risk of fire in an area that’s scarcely served by fire protection services.
“I’ve put a lifetime of work into putting in a timber resource,” says Jim. “Sandy and I could lose everything from a fire.”
There are many more stories where these came from.
As of August, more than 2,200 claims had been filed in Oregon under Measure 37, totaling far in excess of $5 billion in demands for compensation.
Oregon taxpayers can’t pay, so the laws just get waived instead. Not surprisingly, there has been a growing backlash to Measure 37.
That’s not to say that regulations are always fair to everyone. They aren’t.
Community planning is a balancing act. It can be tough and contentious and not everyone will always get what they want. And even the best laws may be open to allegations of unfairness.
But Proposition 207 is like trying to pull a sore tooth with a sledgehammer. It may fix some legitimate problems, but it will create a much bigger mess.
When the officer who pulled me over last week approached, I didn’t ask him to pay me. I just handed him my license, a bit sheepish that I’d broken a law designed for the good of the community.
I apologized, he let me off with a warning, and I drove the speed limit the rest of the way home. I wonder if Arizona will heed the warning from Oregon.
This Guest Opinion appears online only and not in the Tucson Citizen’s print edition.
Eric de Place is senior research associate at Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based research and communications center, www.sightline.org. A version of this essay is available online through The Next American City, at www.americancity.org.