Oregon battle sweeps West - Taking their cue from Oregon, property owners and critics across region head for ballot showdowns
SEATTLE, WA-- Oregon's property-rights movement is being exported across the western United States, letting voters from California to Montana decide how vigorously governments control the landscape.
November ballot measures in a block of seven states this side of the Rocky Mountains would limit public officials' ability to buy and regulate property. But opposition is sweeping the West, too, with well-organized critics predicting scattered subdivisions and contaminated water if the measures pass.
An initiative in Washington -- the one most like Oregon's Measure 37 -- offers a window into the clashing values that will fuel campaigns.
Property-rights activists seized on their 2004 win in Oregon, where governments now waive land-use rules or pay owners for lost value. The U.S. Supreme Court inflamed the movement with its Kelo v. New London ruling, allowing government to forcibly buy land and turn it over to another private owner as an economic development tool.
Both issues crop up in the latest batch of initiatives, including an Oregon proposal restricting governments' ability to condemn land. Allowing citizens to challenge regulations, as Measure 37 did, is more controversial.
In Washington, Initiative 933 would require governments to excuse landowners from rules approved after 1995 or compensate them. New regulations could be created only as a last resort.
State Farm Bureau leaders, who wrote the measure, say rural residents shouldn't shoulder the cost of discouraging country development, protecting habitat and shepherding people into cities.
Campaign details are specific to Washington. But the rhetoric is echoing across the West.
Campaigns gearing up
Rush-hour traffic is untangling in central Seattle as friends' chatter spills out of bars and restaurants on a Thursday night. A level up from the street, more than 150 opponents of I-933 gather for a King County kickoff party at campaign headquarters.
Critics of Measure 37 organized early in Washington, determined to avoid a repeat of Oregon's vote, where the measure passed by a 3-2 ratio. They hired a campaign director in 2005, a year before the state had its own proposal. Seven staffers now run the industrial-hip office, not counting interns, volunteers or a dog who has gained weight from long hours indoors.
Giant red question marks hang from windows, evoking the group's "unanswered questions" theme. Examples are posted on the wall: "Why did they make 933 unfair to taxpayers?" "Who really benefits from 933's loopholes?"
Campaigners say the measure will cost a lot to implement and allow harmful development. Ambiguous wording, they say, opens the door to extensive waivers.
A planning consultant arrives by scooter, worried 933 would put her out of work. A lifelong Democrat who follows Measure 37 wants to fight Washington's version. A newly minted environmental engineer tags along with her housemate, a campaign worker.
Among the crowd is Paul Fellows, who has been active in his Seattle neighborhood since it was a rough patch of empty storefronts and cheap homes during the 1970s. More recently, he helped craft a community plan.
City leaders asked residents to absorb more housing. Four-plexes replace old homes; the main drag has become a nightlife hub.
In exchange, Fellows thought, he'd enjoy open spaces untouched by growth. He measures this perk in fir trees and country drives.
If rural residents apply to develop or be paid, Fellows asks, "How are they going to compensate me? I had my neighborhood changed."
A stream of speakers -- labor and religious leaders, campaign organizers and King County's top elected official, Ron Sims -- pleads for donations of time and money.
Beating 933 will take $3 million to $4 million, says Aaron Ostrom, director of pro-planning Futurewise. He predicts voters will reaffirm why they love living here by rejecting the measure, as they did a similar proposal in 1995.
This group, Ostrom tells the audience, has something to prove: "Oregon was a fluke."
The next day, 230 miles southeast and a world away, the Farm Bureau hosts its summer picnic.
Families come to Kennewick for agriculture updates, barbecue and bluegrass on the Columbia River. But a campaign is taking off, too, and these are the people behind it.
Board members say they picked a 1996 cutoff to preserve basic zoning and prevent intensive development. More recently, they argue, rules such as state-required habitat plans have gotten out of hand.
After receiving complaints about hard-and-fast waterway buffers, some counties have given farmers flexibility. But those backing the initiative want a long-term guarantee they can fully use their land.
Steve Appel, Raul de Leon and Wes McCart gather at a table in the shade, which is hot enough to send a trail of sweat down your back.
"We grow just about everything you can grow in Washington," police officer and forester de Leon says of his chapter near Olympia.
"Including rules and regulations," quips Appel, a wheat farmer going on 12 years as state president.
"That as well," says de Leon, who views ability to use land freely as part of the American Dream.
All three say off-limits streamsides could be the difference between profit and loss. But, they say, they intend to treat the earth well.
"My cows drink that water. My family drinks that water. I have to continue farming that land year after year," says McCart, who leads a Northeast Washington chapter.
Farm Bureau leaders dismiss critics' concerns as scare tactics. Washington doesn't have to abandon laws if 933 passes, spokesman Dean Boyer says. When rules are worth it, taxpayers can chip in to compensate affected landowners.
"Government looks at this as free land," Boyer says. "That's the attitude that led to this uprising in Oregon, in Washington and in other states around the country."
Land-use measures expose fault lines in how Americans view the role of government.
Consider Kol Medina, a 33-year-old environmental lawyer and former Peace Corps volunteer who manages the West Sound Wildlife Shelter on Bainbridge Island.
Injured animals recuperate at the modest building a half-hour ferry trip from downtown Seattle. Medina's staff also coaches humans with squirrels in the attic or deer munching rose bushes.
Medina fears 933 will promote rural development, putting wildlife in contact with humans. Trees disappear; wells siphon water from streams that nourish fish.
Values behind 933 irk him, too.
"A speed limit takes away my right to drive as fast as I want," Medina says. "Meatpacking laws take away my right to eat cheaper meat that may not be as healthy for me. If we get to the point of paying people for every right we take away, our democracy won't work."
The issue is just as central to the philosophy of Rodney McFarland, who lives in semi-rural May Valley on Seattle's suburban fringe.
Several years ago, McFarland lobbied for a flexible protection plan along the creek that meanders through his community. Later, neighbors teamed up with other activists to form the Citizens' Alliance for Property Rights.
"We figured out we're a microcosm of what's going on in the rest of the county and the rest of the state. Probably the rest of the West, really," says McFarland, who is now the group's president.
Advocating landowner freedom also suits his Libertarian politics.
Limited-government groups are backing property rights measures nationwide. The Reason Foundation issued a report on replicating Measure 37. Americans for Limited Government is financing initiatives, including $200,000 in Washington. Its board chairman, New York businessman Howard Rich, donated $1.5 million in California.
Even among farmers, often portrayed as a monolithic group, property rights can be divisive.
Judy and Wade Bennett have fought rules on their 70-acre farm, where they grow bamboo and Asian vegetables for Seattle-area restaurants and outdoor markets.
King County exempted farmers from stream buffers that would have taken 10 percent of the couple's orchard out of production under an original proposal. But the Bennetts refuse to craft an individual farm plan with the county as instructed, saying they're the experts on their land.
They choose not to use chemicals; they manage water carefully; they protect habitat for birds that control the rodent population.
Rapid population growth requires some planning, Wade Bennett says -- "to manage people and infrastructure and everything else." But, he adds, "we're losing some of that independence that's culturally American."
Steve Sakuma, a third-generation farmer, says collective decisions about how to use land fit snugly into his idea of America.
He returned to his family's berry operation, midway between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., after a 26-year career in the U.S. Army.
The farm was still there, Sakuma says, because of land-use rules. Development stayed a healthy distance away, even as stores covered fields in nearby Burlington and commuters outnumbered tractors.
Not every rule is good, Sakuma says, and compensation may be needed. But he worries 933 opens the door to development without a full discussion of tradeoffs.
"We had a choice to be a farmer or not be a farmer," Sakuma says. "You wouldn't be a farmer if you weren't a steward of the land."
Laura Oppenheimer: 503-294-7669; firstname.lastname@example.org