Chapter 3.10

The Politics of Planning
(Oregon Planners' Journal, August 1997)

By Richard Carson

This article is about the political taxonomy -- the hierarchical organization -- of land use policy making in Oregon. It is not about which group has the moral imperative. I wrote it for the planner who is new to this state, the planner who is new to the profession or for the experienced Oregon planner who wants to know that he or she is not alone in these beliefs. I believe it is important that we planners share our common understanding of reality. My premise is simple:

    Planners have very little to say about the politics
of planning in Oregon.

The primary protagonists in Oregon's land use struggle are either developers or environmentalists. Planners have somehow evolved as neutral (neutered?) professionals who believe their job is to facilitate development within a predetermined set of community values which come in the form of regulations. These "values" are determined at the city, county, regional and state level by elected officials who are influenced by everyone -- except the planners. The downside to this reality is that we planners end up doing everyone else's bidding and have no say in the future of our profession. Planning in this state is monopolized by a handful of organizations led by environmentalists and developers, and their respective attorneys -- but not by planners. Given the players involved, the debate is not about having comprehensive and rational land use planning. It is about either developing land or preserving it "au natural."

A Gross Generalization

The environmentalists are in every sense of the word "social-engineers" who are working to save the natural environment at the expense of human development. They want the citizens of the state to live an inner-city lifestyle like they do. These professionals -- as lawyers and environmentalists -- are trained to he adversarial. They present themselves to the public as supporters of planning, but they are not planners. This regime has grown stronger over the 25 years since statewide land use planning was created. They have been most effective in getting key positions in the administrations of the more liberal Governors.

The developers on the other hand have the same capitalist-frontier mentality that forged the American West. They' don't like government bureaucrats because it wastes their time and money. The developers, while not trained to be adversarial, seem to have a genetic predisposition to it.

The Major Players

Each side in this struggle has its shock troops, lobbyists, academic supporters and friendly government agencies. The shock troops job is to be confrontational and litigate. The lobbyists are more adept at the subtle art of propaganda and influencing elected officials. The academic institutions are there to provide the basic research to either fuel the debate or support policy positions. Each side has government agencies that are friendly to it.

The front line groups for he environmentalists are 1000 Friends of Oregon and the Oregon Natural Resources Council (ONRC). The lobbyists are the Portland Audubon Society, Livable Oregon and the Association for Portland Progress. The academic connection is the Institute for Portland Metropolitan Studies. The wealthier and friendlier governments are LCDC [Land Conservation and Development Commission], Tri-Met and Metro.

The front line troops for the developers are Oregonians In Action. The lobbyists are the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland the state home builders and the Oregon Realtors Association. The academic-research connection is the Cascade Policy Institute. The counties of the state basically support the developer agenda. Multnomah County is the only county solidly and consistently with the environmentalists.

The Oregon Department of Transportation and the Oregon Economic Development Department have traditionally been pro-development. However, after three consecutive Democrat Governors [Goldschmidt, Roberts, Kitzhaber] they have been forced to sing a more environmentalist-friendly tune.

The business community (the non-development businesses) is for the most part silent on land use planning. A business may support the occasional candidate or ballot, but avoids the  issues relating to property rights. In recent years, a handful of wealthy businessmen have rallied around the property tax issue because it increases their bottom line. However, they are still more interested in keeping their money than in taking on the environmentalists.

A Brief History

The environmentalists have controlled the Governor's office since 1987. It can be argued that even the Republican governors (i.e., Hatfield, McCall, Atiyeh) were liberals on land use planning as far back as 1959. I served in the administrations of both Governors Atiyeh and Goldschmidt and actually survived the transition. Although they were from different parties and had different management styles, they  like most Governors  were pragmatic about managing growth.

The developers have made nominal headway because the last two legislatures  since 1993 -- were loosely controlled by the Republicans. But in reality, either they were concerned enough about their constituent votes to not seriously change the statewide planning system, or the Governor vetoed their more extreme bills.

Where Did We Go Wrong?

The planner as an advocate, for better urban design and land use planning, died out in the 1960s and 1970s. Planners became process people -- they simply shut their mouths and eyes and let the citizens make the decisions. This is not necessarily a negative. It meant that the citizens started making their own decisions with our help and guidance.

Unfortunately, planners were driven from the field of advocacy by developers and were replaced by environmental activists. Planners have come to accept the basic covenants of the new regime -- and to believe otherwise is to be seduced by the dark side of the force.

However, I say it is time that Oregon planners once again assert their own faith in their profession and in themselves. It must be a good thing when words like "sustainable, pedestrian-friendly, and neo-traditional neighborhood" are put on our table. How can we question such words? However the rules have changed. Now people talk of skinny streets and maximum density. The new regime's premise builds on the old and says that we must make as many human beings live in as small an area as possible. However, I believe it is up to us to help define, create and be leaders in a new paradigm.

Planning must once again be a bottom up process
-- not a top down one.

Under the new regime, light rail and bus transit have become major drivers of land use planning. It is exactly the same as the old regime's use of freeways and roads. This means we are still living in a world where transportation leads land use. The only difference now is that we ask how can land use support increased transit ridership.

One turning point in this shift was when the new regime successfully killed the Western Bypass in Washington County. The balance of power shifted from the highway-developer coalition to the transit-environmentalist coalition.

I am like most Oregonians -- a social liberal and a fiscal conservative. Land use planning has always drifted between these two poles. I believe the agenda of the current regime is greatly aided by the "bogeymen" of the Right -- primarily folks like Oregonians In Action, as the state homebuilders and Realtors. This conservative agenda often chases after windmills that the public at large is not interested in. For example, the "eco-take" legislation is a loser. The public -- including planners -- loves the Endangered Species Act.

I believe that it is once again time for the planning advocate. I don't care what you advocate as long as you act on your faith. We are people who have strong beliefs. Let us articulate them -- through our Association, through our words, and in the end through our actions.

Richard H. Carson is Director of Oregon City's Community Development Department.

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Common Sense
by Richard H. Carson