Out of Control Policy Blog

Meaure 37: Plundering Oregon Planning?

This recent editorial from the Statesman Journal deserves a bit of a fisking:

    Way back in 1973, a bunch of Oregonians got together with a common goal: save farmland and stop urban sprawl.

    They came from different parts of the state, different occupations and different political parties. But they shared a common understanding: The environment of this state is what shapes us as Oregonians.

    These visionary individuals created Senate Bill 100, the most effective and resilient land-use program in the United States. The program's No. 1 goal was citizen involvement, and thousands of Oregonians helped cities, counties and the state design and implement the land-use rules.

Minor quibble, but was the goal to save farmland and stop sprawl, or citizen involvement? I'd argue the former, but give the Statesman Journal credit for trying to pull as many heartstrings as possible. They're laying it on so thick that you can almost touch S.B. 100's noble intentions.

    For all the good that law did, it never escaped its persistent foes. Legislature after Legislature fended off attempts to emasculate the land-use program. Last fall, it was the people who surrendered.

I guess that one man's "surrender" is another man's stand for protecting private property rights.

    By a stunningly wide margin, Oregonians embraced Measure 37 and jilted decades of consistent land-use planning. The measure places local and state governments in a bind: Either allow many property owners to do whatever they wish with their land or pay them not to.

Outright deception here...M37 doesn't allow property owners to do "whatever they wish;" it allows them some reprieve when regulations not in existence at the time of purchase are subsequently adopted that decrease the value of the property. Only in the social engineer's mind does that equal a free-for-all.

    Oregonians' approval of Measure 37 did more than chop local land-use ordinances into pieces. The measure stunned the nation, stalling efforts elsewhere to rein in sprawl.

Dramatic hyperbole, anyone? Read this recent Washington Policy Center analysis of M37 implementation, which argues that it hasn't produced anywhere near the catastrophe that detractors have claimed.

And how exactly did M37 stall anti-sprawl efforts elsewhere? Unless M37 somehow placed handcuffs on the planning profession nationally (and it didn't), then the anti-sprawl train is still chugging forward.

    This background illustrates why one of the 2005 Legislature's most important acts was the establishment of a task force. Ten people will conduct the first comprehensive, objective view of the land-use system since it was created 32 years ago. Before court cases and civic inaction destroy the land-use program, the task force must recommend how to restructure it and make it relevant to contemporary life.

Finally, some sanity. It's about time that someone stepped back and took a look at Oregon's dinosaur planning system. Let's hope that this task force does not just become an echo chamber designed to tinker around the edges.

    Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski pushed for review. Like the legendary Republican Tom McCall, Kulongoski is equally at home in the small towns and deserts of Eastern Oregon and the urban centers and coastal towns of Western Oregon.

    Working with Republicans and Democrats, McCall prodded the 1973 Legislature into protecting both the environment and the economy. In his opening address to that Legislature, McCall said, "There is a shameless threat to our environment and to the whole quality of life, an unfettered despoiling of the land. Sagebrush subdivisions, coastal 'condomania,' and the ravenous rampage of suburbia in the Willamette Valley all threaten to mock Oregon's status as the environmental model for the nation. We are dismayed that we have not stopped misuse of the land, our most valuable finite natural resource."

    Over time, that model land-use program became mired in regulations. Rank-and-file Oregonians lost touch with it, except when it blocked the sale or development of their property. Seemingly thoughtful regulations wound up allowing development on some prime farmland instead of steering housing to low-value hillsides.

You mean good intentions don't automatically lead to good policy outcomes? Could this actually be an acknowledgement that the planning system has become a bloated, over-regulatory bureacratic structure unresponsive to citizens and a vehicle for massive social engineering?

    Despite the program's many imperfections, Oregon was more successful than any other state in containing sprawl and maintaining farmland. Because of land-use regulations, commute times are shorter than in many regions and the air quality is better. In the Portland area, an unusually high percentage of residents are able to walk, bicycle or take public transit to work. Almost every Oregonian is only minutes away from a beautiful, restful rural setting. And according to one survey after another, Oregon has retained a national reputation for being hospitable to businesses.

Well, that's certainly one rosy view. But here's a counter.

    Yet Oregonians agree less and less on what constitutes responsible, reasonable land-use regulation. Disputes range from the location of Abiqua School and Court Street Christian Church in the Salem area to the placement of Wal-Marts in Southern Oregon.

    The dilemma is that Oregonians profess love for the land and the water but also respect personal rights.

    Back in 1973, Oregonians didn't always agree, but they shared more of a common ground. The new task force is a critical step in helping us find that ground again.

Hopefully this is correct. Oregonians are obviously displeased with a planning system that has grown increasingly unwieldy, so a return to the drawing board wouldn't be a bad idea. But don't underestimate the resistance among true believers...Oregon's planning is the holy grail for most urban planners, the standard by which all others are judged, so don't think that they'll let it be tweaked without a fight.

One last thought...I think it's useful to recall the recent words of Richard Carson, former Portland Metro head, about Measure 37:

    Certainly there is a lot of hand wringing and wailing by Oregon planners these days. But the one thing you won't hear is anyone acknowledging that planning caused this revolt. Indeed, in typical response, the planning profession simply says, "The voters just didn't understand. If only we could have explained it to them." I have been a professional planner for over 25 years and I hear that refrain a lot.

    Why is it is never a failure on our part as planners to understand what citizens really want? Why is it always a failure on the citizens' part to understand what a wonderful gift we are giving them? Do we not understand that we are guilty of the sin of pride and the ballot measure was the price of our prejudice? Why do we continue to believe that the voters aren't capable of making intelligent decisions?

    As a professional planner of almost 30 years, I am ready to say "mea culpa." But then I have written numerous essays that foreshadowed this day. I have railed against the sins of centralized planning, social engineering and faux citizen involvement. This is especially true about the grand Oregon "experiment" that in time became institutionalized into a monolithic and unresponsive planning bureaucracy.

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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