PORTLAND VOTES TO GROW LIKE LOS ANGELES - UN model 'sustainable city' increases traffic congestion, air pollution and reduces urban open space

by Randal O'Toole, The Thoreau Institute

Portland, Oregon - 5/24/02 - In an election held on Tuesday, May 21, 58 percent of Portland-area voters chose density over expansion of the region's urban-growth
boundaries. Opponents of smart growth had used the initiative process to put a measure on the ballot to limit the power of Metro, Portland's regional planning authority, to impose density on local communities. But voters rejected the measure.

Metro's plan for Portland would quadruple traffic congestion, increase air pollution, and reduce urban open space. It has already reduced the number of families who can afford single-family housing by half and imposed increased taxes and reduced urban services in
order to subsidize Metro's vision of apartments and light-rail transit. Metro has even said that its goal is to "replicate" Los Angeles' congestion in the Portland area.

Most Portland-area residents place congestion and affordable housing high on their lists of urban problems. So why did they vote for an agency and a plan that is making those problems worse? It appears that proponents of the anti-density ballot measure failed to get
their message across.

Oregon residents have been subjected to more than a quarter century of propaganda associating "land-use planning" with "livability." Most opposition to land-use planning has come from rural residents upset with the downzoning of their land. Seventy percent of Oregon voters are urbanites who haven't been sympathetic to the rural issues.

In November 2000, Oregonians in Action, the main lobby group representing rural property owners, placed several measures on the ballot using the initiative process. But it decided to concentrate all its energy on measure 7, which would require governments to
compensate property owners whose property values were reduced by regulation since they purchased that property.

Measure 7 passed, apparently because many urbanites could see the justice in compensating landowners for lost property values. More than 56 percent of Portland voters opposed the measure, but Portland suburbs and most downstate counties supported it.

Claiming that measure 7 would destroy Oregon's land-use planning process, opponents challenged it in court on the technicality that it covered two subjects. Oregon's constitution requires that ballot measures cover only one subject at a time. Although Oregon's governor
and attorney general are legally obligated to defend measures approved by the people, they did little in its defense and the court refused to allow Oregonians in Action to intervene on the measure's behalf. The court threw the measure out; it is now before the Oregon
Supreme Court which has not yet ruled.

After the court case, the attorney for the opposition submitted a request for attorney's fees. The attorney's time statements showed that he had had many long meetings with the governor's and attorney general's offices. Oregonians in Action charged that the governor and attorney general conspired with the opponents to throw the case. The governor responded by appointing the assistant attorney general who handled the case to a circuit court judgeship.

Emboldened by the success of the compensation measure, Oregonians in Action wrote a measure to take away Metro's powers to increase densities. Under Oregon law, Metro must provide enough land for housing to accommodate an estimated twenty years worth of growth. Metro met this requirement by ordering the 24 cities and three counties in its jurisdiction to impose higher density zoning on existing neighborhoods. If Metro loses the authority to do this, it will have to accommodate growth by expanding the urban-growth

In response, Metro wrote its own ballot measure that promised not to increase the density of selected single-family neighborhoods for 13 years. This measure, which was titled "Prohibits increased density in existing neighborhoods," was endorsed by 1000 Friends. Although it sounds restrictive, it does nothing about the neighborhoods whose densities have already been increased by cities to meet Metro's density targets. If both measures passed, the one getting the most votes would prevail.

If Metro's goal was to confuse the issue, it may have partially succeeded. The election returns indicate that, out of 269,000 voters, at least 17,000 voted for both measures. But the pattern of votes displays a clear urban-suburban split that suggests that most voters
were not confused. While 63 percent of Portland voters opposed the anti-density measure, the results were much closer in the suburbs, where more than 48 percent of voters opposed densification.

Density opponents made two mistakes that contributed to this loss. First, they spread themselves too thin by campaigning on several races. Second, they may have focused their anti-density campaign on the wrong issues.

Where they won measure 7 in 2000 by focusing on that measure, in 2002 they diluted their efforts by running candidates for several offices. First, they ran candidates for several Metro offices. One of these candidates got enough votes to be in a runoff election next November,
but is still a longshot for that office, especially because both of her opponents (who together won nearly two-thirds of the votes) were Metro supporters.

Second, Oregonians in Action's attorney, David Hunnicutt, decided to challenge the circuit court judge who was appointed by the governor after throwing the measure 7 case. As in many states, Oregon judges are elected but retire in mid-term so that an appointed incumbant always stands for election. Incumbants are rarely challenged. By taking up this race, Hunnicutt not only diverted resources from the anti-density measure, he stifled his own voice on the measure because candidates for Oregon judgeships are forbidden from actively campaigning.

On top of this, density opponents may have focused on the wrong issues in their campaign. I didn't hear any of their radio ads, but most of the statements they made in the county voter's pamphlets focused on "local control."

Metro's supporters campaigned on a platform of "land-use planning means livability," while they successfully portrayed "local control" as meaning "control by speculators and developers." Metro opponents failed to get the message across that Metro was reducing Portland's livability by increasing congestion, pollution, and housing prices.

Polls show that Portland-area residents both support the urban-growth boundary and oppose density. The only view compatible with these two goals is no growth, and given a clear choice between no growth, smart growth, and free-market growth, it is probably that a plurality of Portland-area voters would support no growth.

A campaign over smart growth vs. free-market growth, then, is really a battle for the no-growth voters. Such voters will respond positively to livability issues but not to property rights or local control issues. By focusing on local control, the anti-density campaign allowed themselves to be painted as property rights extremists rather than as people concerned about traffic congestion, housing affordability, or other livability issues.

I don't mean to criticize Oregonians in Action or Monday-morning quarterback their efforts. It is ironic that a rural-based group has done more to raise the livability and density issue than anyone in the Portland area. I greatly appreciate their efforts and hope that they continue to work on this issue. But it is important to figure out why they lost so that density opponents can do better next time.

It is easily possible that there will be a next time. Between 1990 and 1998, voter support for light rail in the Portland area declined from 75 percent to 47 percent. Despite Metro's propaganda, voters who hoped that light rail would reduce roadway congestion clearly figured out that it wasn't working.

Metro opponents have several options for challenging Metro at the ballot box. I am partial to a "neighborhood options act" that would allow neighborhoods to write their own zoning codes in the form of protective covenants. This would be open to the "local control" bugaboo, but if handled right as a statewide measure it could garner the same support as measure 7.

Since Metro refuses to build more roads, opponents could propose a tollroads authority outside of Metro's control that could build self-funding roads. Quite a bit of educational effort would be needed to overcome Oregonians who are used to "free" roads.

Metro opponents could also try to restrict local government's authority to do tax-increment financing, which is the only taxing power Oregon governments have without going to a vote of the people. The Portland suburbs of Gresham and Troutdale have already passed such restrictions, and more suburbs could do the same.

I am sure that other challenges to Metro's authority are also possible. In the meantime, I will provide additional information on Portland's vote, including the campaign finance reports, as this information becomes available.


Randal O'Toole                      The Thoreau Institute
rot@ti.org                              http://www.ti.org

Portland is considered to be a "model" sustainable city by the U.N.
Sustainable Portland

Center of Excellence for Sustainable Development - U.S. Dept. of Energy

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