Drawbridge Mentality: Anti-growth bias threatens to create 'gated' communities
(The Oregonian, December 4, 1997)
By Richard H. Carson
Oregonians are once again being courted by provincial xenophobes peddling the false promise of "no growth." The latest weapon of the no growth special interest groups is "voter annexation." The no growth advocates are pushing for voter annexation because they are betting that the drawbridge mentality of local voters will result in gated cities.
It harkens back to the 1970's bumper-sticker message of "Don't Californicate Oregon!" It is sad that these people cannot see that the bumper sticker actually reads "I don't want my children to live here."
The annexation of new land has historically been a city council decision of the 200 plus cities in Oregon. These decisions are made at the request of the land owner and are based on the availability of urban services. However, in the last few years there has been a movement to take the legislative decision out of the hands of local elected officials and to put such decisions to a citywide vote. In this way the outcome can more easily be influenced by the rhetoric of special interest groups. To date the voters in 10 cities have made such decisions.
The no-growth political rhetoric intentionally creates a climate of "us" versus "them." Every activist group needs a bogey man. In the past it has been a hatred based on race, sexual preference, religion or political beliefs. It is indeed fortunate for the no growth groups that developers will never be a protected class. A recent statewide poll done by the American Planning Association revealed that the word "developer" was unfavorable to 52 percent of the voters. Only the word "bureaucrat" polled worse.
What could possibly be wrong with letting voters have control over the local land annexations?
In American we have a tremendous freedom of mobility and we have the liberty to decide where we want to live. Voter annexation means that there will be gated cities where you may find it hard -- if not impossible -- to rent or buy a home.
Voter annexation increases land development and traffic congestion in neighboring jurisdictions. In the City of Corvallis, the majority is voting against annexations and the prohibition is resulting in the cities of Sweet Home, Lebanon and Albany having to absorb more housing and people. The problem is that many of these people work in Corvallis. This is creating an inequitable and unfair imbalance between jobs and housing in the area.
Housing costs artificially increase. When you buy a new house some 10-20 percent of the total cost is attributed to land alone. If land is in short supply, then the cost of the land increases and the new home buyer pays the increase.
Voter annexation goes against the intent of the statewide land use planning system. Cities are required to establish urban growth boundaries with a 20-year land supply and to adopt comprehensive plans to guide the development in the future urban areas between the city limits and the boundary. However, voter annexation means there may never be 20-year land supply.
Voter annexation breaks the statewide land use planning promise to local governments and the development community of "an orderly and efficient" planning process. It makes any annexation of land a financial crapshoot and discourages developers from even attempting to annex and develop land in a "gated city."
Why is voter annexation becoming popular? The no growth special interest groups are playing upon voter fear and anger.
Voters believe that growth is not paying its way and that they are subsidizing it.
In the past, a city's economic reality was often an increasing population and a fixed tax base. For this reason land annexations raise the specter of increased pressures on city services. However, ballot Measure 50 now allows a city that annexes land to grow their tax base. This is an important state constitutional shift. In the post-Measure 50 tax environment a city that will not annex land is going to have to live with a fixed tax base and a tax dollar eroded by inflation.
Many citizens are disenfranchised from the local and state land use planning system. The state's system is almost 25 years old. We have basically lost a generation of people who believed in the program and remember adopting a city comprehensive plan.
Most voters want local control. The same statewide poll showed that Oregonians are very supportive of statewide land use planning. However, there are twice as many voters who support local government having the "final say about planning" issues (57 percent) than those who support the state having it (24 percent).
What can be done? This should have been a job for the Oregon Legislature. Unfortunately, the 1997 legislature failed to resolve the issue. The late session "dysfunction" left voter annexation in place. We could wait until the next session, but the Legislature could still fail to deal with it.
One alternative would be for a growth management coalition to petition the Land Conservation and Development Commission. LCDC has its own legislative authority that was delegated to it by the Legislature. One of its primary functions is to deal with urban growth boundaries and future urban lands. LCDC could amend the statewide planning goals to prohibit voter annexation. Hopefully the governor's office recent stance against no growth may strengthen LCDC's resolve.
There are some political observers who believe that such an action by LCDC would be its very undoing. It would simply play into the hands of conservative politicians who are looking for an excuse to do away with statewide land use planning and LCDC. My response to this caution is that LCDC exists for a reason -- to implement and promote statewide land use planning. Sometimes we must act on principle and say to hell with the theoretical consequences.
If LCDC fails to summon up the requisite courage or legal authority, then the same land use coalition could field a series of lawsuits against the cities with voter annexation. The basis of the legal action could be that the cities have violated the state mandated 20-year land supply requirement.
The truth is that the voters don't like change and want things to go on the way they are. Thomas Jefferson said that such societal attitudes are foolish because "We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy. . . ."
The great promise of the Oregon Territory was a new life for all those who were brave enough to face change and make the journey. It is the greatest of ironies that those who want to stop growth in Oregon are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants.
Richard H. Carson is the Managing Editor of the Oregon Planners' Journal.