Oregon Offers Lessons for Combatting Destructive "Property Rights" Initiative
"Let 933 increase traffic? No on 933!" blare this season's newest yard signs. But is Initiative 933 even about traffic? I-933 is the latest effort by conservatives to roll back land-use regulations. In an attempt to make voters connect tangible, negative consequences to the property-rights initiative, the I-933 opposition has latched onto simple sound bites like "Traffic!" "Loopholes!" and "Farmland!" (Another sign reads "Save Washington's Remaining Farmland.") But with competing I-933 supporters hollering simple, populist lines about the importance of protecting private property, will voters get the environmentalists' message and reject I-933?
Over the past five years, the tornadoes of property-rights campaigns have touched down across the country. Local I-933 opponents are still shaken from a failure close to home. In 2004, Oregon voters decided to gut their state's strict land-use regulations, overwhelmingly passing an initiative called Measure 37. With rural resentment still fermenting over Ron Sims's Critical Areas Ordinance, Washington State could head down the same path.
Like Oregon's Measure 37, Washington's I-933 is built around the compelling idea that the government needs to compensate property owners if environmental, zoning, or land-use regulations hurt property values. Under both, county governments can either pay property owners for the loss in potential value to their land caused by regulations or waive the regulations.
Even though Measure 37 opponents out-fundraised measure supporters, netting $2.3 million, the measure blew away the opposition with 61 percent of the vote. Since the measure's passage, the landscape of Oregon land-use laws has changed; landowners have filed 2,940 Measure 37 claims according to the Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies. One high-profile owner wants to build a gravel mine in a Clackamas County neighborhood, for example; another man is demanding $203 million in compensation not to develop a pumice mine on property he owns within Newberry National Volcanic Monument. So far, the broke counties have paid out no money, instead opting to waive the environmental and zoning regulations.
Critics of Washington's I-933 say it's "Measure 37 on steroids." And just like in Oregon, opposition groups in Washington have out-fundraised the property-rights activists by hundreds of thousands of dollars ($793,000 to $462,000), but a description of the initiative still initially polled at over two-thirds approval. The only way the outcome will be any different in Washington is if opposition campaigners learn the lesson from the Oregon election: When two-thirds of the population is against them from the start, they're going to have to spin to win.
"People wanted to discuss it at a very abstract level, at 'What is fair?' And as long as the discussion was on that abstract level rather than on the practical level, we were in big trouble," says Jonathan Poisner, executive director of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, who also offered advice to the No on 933 campaign. "We never cracked the formula necessary to get people to understand the practical implications of the measure." The Measure 37 campaign, on the other hand, got voters to connect with their side. "They had a TV ad featuring a 90-year-old widow talking about how the government had taken her land," says Poisner. "It was extremely memorable." Bill Lunch, a professor at Oregon State University who watched the campaigns, remembered the 90-year-old widow, too. "They evoked the resentment over oppressive land-use regulations hurting helpless people," says Lunch, "The opposition campaign took more of a cerebral approach."
The anti-I-933 campaign is trying not to make the same "cerebral" mistake and is instead focusing on easy-to-understand, practical reasons for land regulation. "We're just talking about the outcome," says Aaron Toso, one of eight full-time staffers on the No on 933 committee, "Traffic is something that's a real consequence people can connect with." Toso is right about going specific, but "traffic" and "farmland" are not specific enough. Indeed, traffic might seem like a non sequitur to voters who don't make the fairly sophisticated mental leap from opening the door to backyard gravel mines and farmland subdivisions to the consequential increase in traffic.
However, it's not impossible for the liberals to pull out an underdog win against a popular conservative measure. Last year's Initiative 912 gas-tax repeal polled at 58 percent approval before a very targeted campaign hit on specific issues in each local area and got voters to hop the fence. Anti-933 should learn from that success and ditch its broad and tangential message about "Traffic!" and talk about the possibility of a gravel mine in your neighborhood.
The I-933 committee is banking on the buzzwords, too, peppering its website with stories of property taken by the government flexing eminent domain. "The government is regulating away the use and value of property," says Dan Wood of the Washington Farm Bureau, "We've been trying to get a solution through the legislature for 15 years." For better or worse, Washington's land-use laws are now in the voters' hands.