They May Have 1000 Friends, But None Are Builders
(The Business Journal, May 4, 1998, reprinted
in the Oregon Planners' Journal, July 1998)
By Richard Carson
The Governor's Task Force on Growth held its first meeting in the Salem Capitol Building on April 6. The task force has been charged by Governor Kitzhaber to "help inform communities on the causes and effects of growth so that they may develop a policy context . . . to guide their future."
The initial meeting had as many task force members, staff and consultants at the table as people in the audience. There was no television or radio. It was by all measures a nonevent. But this task force may have "Titanic" written all over it. It's the election year for the state's governor and there is one wicked iceberg ahead called growth.
It is a fair statement to say that this 13-member task force is not exactly politically balanced. There is only one person actually in the property development business--and he claims to only build "neo-traditional communities." The rest of the task force live primarily in the Portland metropolitan area and carry with them a certain amount of political baggage.
For example, the task force chair, Gail Achterman, also heads the 1000 Friends of Oregon board. Two other task force members are or have been on the 1000 Friends' board. More than three-fourths of the members live in the Willamette Valley and the majority in the Portland metropolitan area are either politicians or attorneys. Noticeably missing are farmers like Hector MacPherson and Stafford Hansel who voted for the original Senate Bill 100 and launched Oregon's statewide planning program.
The governor's opening remarks to the group included the comment that "If I had the power, I'd turn off the spigot and keep Oregon as it is today." Which begs the question about whether the task force agenda is politically predetermined.
Does the task force of a governor, who is a Democrat and an avid environmentalist, have to be balanced? Of course not. I know the task force members are solid citizens and they believe they are not "anti-growth" or "anti-development" I also believe that they may be reluctant to engage the rhetoric and misinformation of the "no growth" movement.
Appointing the chair of 1000 Friends of Oregon is a strong message from the governor. The problem with having 1000 Friends of Oregon--arguably the strongest supporter of statewide land use planning--leading this task force is that they have been "missing in action" on the voter-annexation issue. Why? Because the membership is composed of citizen activists who support statewide land use planning, but can also be very anti-development.
Another problem: The task force's objective does not begin with the idea that doing good planning is the way to manage growth. It wasn't created because the current statewide planning system doesn't work. It does for the most part. It was created to placate a handful of provincial xenophobes who are driving the "no growth" political agenda and claim to speak for all us Oregonians. It is an agenda of class prejudice and of small minds.
Listening to the task force members state their issues was an interesting and disheartening experience. For example, Jeff Rogers -- a Portland attorney who organized a "no growth" conference last October -- actually said that slowing growth is a viable alternative. Of course he didn't say who would be the first to go and didn't volunteer to leave the state.
Mike Burton, Metro's executive officer, stressed the need for a "consumption tax" on houses and on sports utility vehicles because both were bigger than ever. He later stated that "consumption tax" was a euphemism for the "S" word (sales tax). Is growth a "consumption" problem?
The leading voice of reason--Mayor Vera Katz--cautioned the group that the problem they were dealing with runs very deep emotionally. She pointed out that it is getting harder to do planning without opposition. Planning is now seen as the prerequisite to development and change, and not the way to manage it. So the "no growth" activists are working to derail planning programs like the South-North light rail and working to stop Metro's Region 2040 from being implemented.
The good news is that the task force should have little problem reaching a consensus that growth is bad. The bad news? A lot of innovative ideas and practical truth may be rejected.
The growth debate is masking the truth that much of the local government infrastructure is falling apart because existing residents don't want to pay taxes to fix it. Is anyone on this task force going to place financial responsibility on the local voter for degrading the livability of their own community? Will this task force throw the responsibility back to the "no growth" movement?
One thing is certain. Oregonians--for and against growth--will demand real leadership before this task force ends its long journey.
Richard Carson is an urban planner, editor and free lance journalist.