Chapter 5.6

'Voter Annexation' Goes Against Oregon Ideals
(Eugene Register Guard, December 17, 1997)

By Richard Carson

I read with interest how Lane County voters are being courted by provincial xenophobes peddling the false promise of "no growth." The latest weapon of the no-growth special interest group -- Oregon Communities for a Voice in Annexation -- is "voter annexation" ("Oregonians want a voice in city annexations," Dec. 4 guest column by Jerry Ritter.)

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 1970s 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 landowner 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 a decision.

What could possibly be wrong with letting voters have control over the local land annexations?

- In America, we have tremendous freedom 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 impossible - to rent or buy a home.

- Voter annexation increases land development and traffic congestion to neighboring jurisdictions. In the city of Corvallis, the majority is voting against annexations and the prohibition is resulting the cities of Sweet Home, Lebanon and Albany having to absorb more housing a people. The problem is that many of these people work in Corvallis. This creates an inequitable and unfair imbalance between jobs and housing in the area.

- Housing costs artificially increase. When you buy a new house, some 10 percent to 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 guide the development in the future urban areas between the city limits and the boundary.  However, voter annexation means there may never be a 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 crap shoot and discourages developers from even attempting to annex 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.

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 was "dysfunctional" and 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 it's own legislative authority, which 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 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 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 required courage or legal authority, then same land use coalition could field a series of lawsuits against the cities with annexation. The basis of the legal could be that the cities have violated state-mandated, 20-year land use requirement.

The truth is that the voters don't change and want things to go on the way they are. Thomas Jefferson said that societal attitudes are foolish because "We might as well require a man to wear the coat which fitted him when a boy" The great promise of the Oregon Territory was a new life for all those who were enough to face change and make the journey. It is the greatest of ironies that who want to stop growth in Oregon are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants.

Richard Carson is the managing editor of the Oregon Planners' Journal.

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Common Sense
by Richard H. Carson