Friday, March 03, 2006

So Long, "Utopia!"

To many, Oregon was considered to be the nirvana, the "utopia" of planning and orderly development. The state, and particularly the Portland metro area, were often held up as examples of how good planning could result in the best of places to live.

I have visited Portland and Oregon several times, and while I think much of the talk of Oregon as "planning utopia" was overdone (Portland still has run-down areas, traffic jams, lack of affordable housing, and other problems that beset "less enlightened" areas), I was struck with how dramatic the urban growth boundaries resulted in clear lines between developed and undeveloped areas.

But all that national and international notoriety may now slip away (or rather, be replaced by another type of notoriety) as Measure 37 takes effect.

Recent stories in The Oregonian point to this. "Advocates of Oregon-style planning were shocked voters passed the property rights law, said David Goldberg of [Smart Growth America.] 'People who visit Oregon come away in awe,' he said. 'It's really unmatched.'" says a story last week. "Measure 37 has provoked fierce debates over Oregonians' values since voters approved it in November 2004. Oregonians widely view it as a shift in the state's approach to planning, which has been to preserve the countryside for agriculture and concentrate people in cities," says another story yesterday.

It's interesting to see how land use actions are actually playing themselves out now, as well. Another Oregonian story notes that Measure 37 allows longtime landowners to apply for relief from land-use rules adopted after an owner acquires property. If a landowner can show that the value of the land has been harmed by the regulatory action after it was acquired, the government responsible for the rule is required to pay for the loss of value, or waive the land-use rule.

"In all cases approved so far in Clackamas County (Portland area), the rule was waived, an approach that's not about to change when the county's process ramps back up (following the Supreme Court ruling). 'Where would you get the rather astronomical sums to pay owners?' asks (Bill) Kennemer, (county board chairman)."

"All the while, landowners are calling. 'It's been plenty busy,' said Jennifer Hughs, Marion County senior planner. 'Mostly they want to know where they are in the process and what happens next.'

"At the same time, county commissioners want to consider changing a process that they think had become cumbersome. Measure 37 does not dictate a process for how counties consider claims, so Clackamas County officials established one: After landowners file their claim and pay a $750 application fee, the county has 180 days to review the application, notify neighbors, hold a public hearing and make a decision. Hearing held by commissioners became marathon affairs, county staff said -- three times a week, more than four hours at a time, 20 claims at a sitting.

"The public hearing process is important, Kennemer said, because Measure 37 provides very little protection for neighbors who might be affected by a claim. At least a hearing provided a public forum, he said. 'But that creates a workload and sets up a process that maybe is not the most efficient to operate.'"

And what does all this mean for the rest of us? "Measure 37 proponents will use (the) Supreme Court ruling for political leverage in Oregon, and as a selling point for look-a-like proposals in other states," one Oregonian story says. "For now, (Oregonians in Action leader David Hunicutt, author of Measure 37) is busy fielding congratulatory calls from property owners and counterparts across the country. Activists in at least a half-dozen states, including Washington, have modeled legislation or initiatives after Measure 37. One such person, Mark Nix, ... director of the South Carolina Landowners Association, drafted a bill for his state legislature with Hunnicutt's help."

Some say that SB170, introduced in this year's Utah legislative session, was a spin-off of Oregon's Measure 37. I personally don't think so -- I think it was something crafted independently by some of the developer community here in Utah because of perceived problems with the land use application approval process. But I do think there is now a very volatile atmosphere around, and if planners and local government officials are not careful in how development applications are handled, we could see more moves to something like Measure 37.

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