Statewide Growth Measures Loom Large On Tuesday's Ballot
By John Nagy, Staff Writer
It should not be surprising that 2000 would yield another bumper crop of growth-related statewide ballot measures, rooted as most are in the anti-sprawl fever feeding voter interest in local elections. High-speed intercity rail, urban growth boundaries, and cash for brownfields and open space will all go before voters in different states on Nov. 7.
But so will a pair of putative "backlash" initiatives in Oregon and Washington, another sign that growth management by popular vote is coming of age, experts say.
Voters in 22 states will weigh in on how to channel growth through 35 statewide measures according to a new report released by the Brookings Institute. Local ballots will offer residents "hundreds" of additional opportunities to shape their cities and counties.
"People are showing that they want to have a greater influence on the quality of their communities," says the report's author, Phyllis Myers, a land use consultant and leading scholar of growth trends at the ballot box.
Myers, whose study of growth measures during the 1998 elections found that voters approved 72 percent of the 240 state and local "livability" questions, estimates that 56 percent of the electorate will have the opportunity to approve or reject a wider array of "growth-related" measures this year.
Though she cautions that the two reports are not directly comparable and notes there are "fewer big ticket items" this time around, she says the proliferation of statewide initiatives and referenda "reflects the maturing of the growth issue. The increased complexity of the things coming to the ballot is fascinating when compared with 1998," Myers says.
Another round for open space
By Myers' count, six statewide measures concern open space preservation, the salient concern two years ago, while the remainder address growth regulations, economic development, infrastructure investment and local government control. Some of these approaches were not analyzed in the 1998 report.
Much of the action on conservation this year is on the local level. According to the Trust for Public Land, a national non-profit organization that facilitates public and private conservation projects, voters will make decisions on more than 90 conservation funding measures, most of them local, with up to $5 billion for parks and open space hanging in the balance.
This year's statewide open space proposals include:
- Ohio's Issue 1, a $400 million brownfields reclamation and land preservation bond referendum. Ohio environmentalists are critical of Issue 1's heavy investment in what they view as expensive bailouts for big polluters
- A similar $34 million plan in Rhode Island.
- A third measure, Arizona's controversial Proposition 100, that comes on the heels of a statewide decision in 1998 to set aside $220 million through 2010 to help municipalities and private groups protect land from suburban expansion. The new plan, a legislative referendum decried by some environmental groups as a do-little drain on support for a tougher anti-sprawl measure, would forever protect up to 3 percent of the state's trust lands from development.
The governors of all three states back the measures, but while they seem likely to pass in Ohio and Rhode Island, popular support for the Arizona plan has plummeted from nearly two-thirds to one-third since the summer, according to The Arizona Republic and a poll conducted late last month by Arizona State University and KAET-TV.
M. Dane Waters, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Initiative and Referendum Institute, says that environmental bond issues pass easily because voters reason that they can and should bankroll what seems like a good cause. But changes in policy are more complex and no' campaigns need only to make them seem confusing and potenially dangerous in order to successfully quash them.
"As money is spent on the no' side it raises voter doubt," Waters said.
Arizona and Colorado
The fates of once-popular measures like Arizona's Citizen Growth Management Initiative (Proposition 202) and Colorado's Responsible Growth Initiative (Amendment 24) seem to bear that assessment out. Voters now appear poised to reject both plans despite the fact that five of the nation's 20 fastest growing metropolitan areas lie within their states' borders.
"You're seeing some of the last minute blitzes that I've seen in the past. Certainly there is very well-financed opposition to the measures in Arizona and Colorado," Myers said.
Both Proposition 202, upheld by green groups as the preferable alternative to Proposition 100, and Amendment 24 authorize urban growth boundaries similar to those criticized for exacerbating growth problems around Boulder, Colo. and Portland, Ore. The Arizona plan requires boundaries based on 10-year population estimates and voter approval of any changes to local plans; Colorado's would set similar limits but allow residents of sparsely populated counties to opt out of them.
Waters sees this year as critical for growth initiatives, with a lot riding on the success or failure of high-profile battles like those in Arizona and Colorado. "Whoever comes out on top will decide whether or not you're going to see these things in the future," he said.
"Every time a legislative session goes by without any action, it gets easier for us to pass an initiative. I don't think it will discourage people at all," counters Southwest regional director Andy Schultheiss of the League of Conservation Voters Education Fund.
Once the dust has settled in the Southwest, Myers expects post-election analysts' eyes to turn first to the fate of transportation questions in five states.
Florida's status as a presidential battleground state has drained attention away from a constitutional amendment to develop a high-speed rail link between the Sunshine State's five largest cities. Gov. Jeb Bush (R), whose solution to Floridians' traffic woes begins and ends with his $4 billion Mobility 2000 accelerated highway construction initiative, stoutly opposes the plan.
Elsewhere, legislatures have requested voter approval for bond measures to fund general transportation improvements in New York ($3.8 billion) and Rhode Island ($62.5 million) and a $400 million bond issue New Jersey directed primarily at improvements to the state's decaying highway system.
Washington's Initiative 745, the latest effort to shape state fiscal policy from I-695 mastermind Tim Eyman, approaches traffic congestion from the other end of the line. It would require spending 90 cents out of every state transportation dollar on highway construction and repair, leaving mass transit, bicycle paths and other alternatives to roads to fight over the remaining dime.
Smart growth backlash?
Smart growth proponents, including the state chapters of the League of Women Voters and the 1000 Friends organizations, view I-745 and Oregon's "takings" measure as an all-out assault on their land use goals.
But Paula Krane of Oregon's League of Women Voters says that a vote for Measure 7 should be interpreted as the result of successful advertising rather than as dissatisfaction with growth regulations. "Overall there is still strong support for the Oregon land use legislation," Krane said.
"Part of it is that in Oregon we have a conservation-minded governor and a majority Republican Congress. The governor has vetoed a lot of anti-land use legislation and this is kind of a step around that," she said.
Measure 7 would require state and local government to compensate property owners when environmental, growth or historic designation regulations diminish the value or utility of their land. The state estimates it could syphon as much as $5.4 billion out of public coffers each year.
Gov. John Kitzhaber (D), among the measure's leading opponents, says it could destroy the state's progressive growth management laws. But proponents insist they simply hope to restore balance to the system, a view that enjoys a 49 to 46 percent edge according to a new poll conducted by The Oregonian .
"It's not a backlash against the smart growth movement. It's just a reflection of Oregonians' basic sense of fairness in the idea that the burdens of a system that has an economic impact on landowners should be shared equally among everybody," said Dave Hunnicutt, an attorney for the measure's leading proponent, Oregonians in Action.
Other notable land use decisions Tuesday will include:
- Missouri's Proposition A, a moratorium on new billboards and expansion of local authority to restrict outdoor advertising.
- Two measures in Maine. Question 2, "The Forest Protection Act," would require companies and individuals in the Pine Tree State to obtain a permit for clear-cut timber harvests after state foresters complete an ecological impact analysis. Maine voters will also decide whether or not to help commercial fishermen keep their valuable waterfront toeholds by extending them the same use assessment tax benefits currently offered to owners of farmland, wildlife sanctuaries and recreational open space.
- Verdicts in Alabama, Louisiana and Nevada on legislative plans to promote economic development throughout the state.