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At The Polls, Another Good Day For Smart Growth

Ann Arbor greenbelt, Grand Rapids transit win big

November 6, 2003 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Grand Rapids and five nearby cities agreed to strengthen the regional bus system. Proponents said the margin of victory — 21,792 to 11,213 — was made possible by the improvements and visible increase in riders since 2000, when a similar property tax increase was approved.

Voters in Ann Arbor and Ann Arbor Township on Tuesday dismissed a well-financed attack by home builders and overwhelmingly approved ballot measures to raise their property taxes to protect thousands of acres of farmland and open space. Meanwhile voters in Grand Rapids and five neighboring west Michigan cities easily approved a property tax increase to upgrade that region’s successful regional public transit system.

Taken together, the land conservation and public transit votes reflect a strong appetite for curbing sprawl, strengthening cities, and protecting the countryside in Michigan. The trend also held in other states, where Smart Growth programs were voted and generally approved by wide margins, an increasingly frequent occurrence in recent years.

 “It feels great,” said Barry Lonik, a land conservation consultant who helped to design the Ann Arbor open space protection measure, which was approved by a two-to-one margin despite a vigorous opposition campaign waged by Washtenaw County home builders. “It shows that people who love their place in the world don’t have to be bulldozed and steamrolled by people with big money who were just pursuing their own agenda.”

“Wow! What an awesome victory last night,” said Reverend Kenneth Hoskins, who helped to lead the campaign to strengthen the Interurban Transit Partnership, the regional public transit system in Grand Rapids, Michigan’s second largest city. “For us to win in all six cities is such a great feeling,” he said in an e-mail message to supporters.

Proponents of the open space programs in Ann Arbor and Ann Arbor Township and the transit project in Grand Rapids noted that even in an era when voters apparently favor lower taxes and wringing more out government for less, residents nevertheless energetically supported new taxpayer investments in public projects they viewed as improving the economy and quality of life.
Painful Lesson Aids Victory
In Ann Arbor Township, where voters agreed to raise their property taxes about $70 a year for a $200,000 home to protect farmland, the margin of victory was four-to-one. In the city of Ann Arbor voters approved a 30-year extension of an existing property tax to raise some $84 million to protect roughly 8,000 acres of farmland to help shield the city from more sprawl. The margin of victory was 14,524 to 7,270.

Mr. Lonik said that a similar measure, which would have applied to all of Washtenaw County, failed in 1998 after supporters, believing they would win, grew complacent and were then overwhelmed by a barrage of negative television advertising paid for by the Home Builders Association of Washtenaw County and realtor groups.

This time open space proponents identified a charismatic leader, Ann Arbor’s Democratic Mayor John Hieftje — who is also a realtor — to carry their message. They worked diligently to gather broad support from business leaders and prominent professionals in the community. And they raised more than $150,000 from 500 donors, principally to finance one television and two radio spots that directly confronted the home builders. 

“Last time, in 1998, we thought we had that campaign won,” said Mr. Lonik. “We didn’t expect the vitriol, the negative messages. We played it safe and didn’t do any negative campaigning on television. This time we knew what we faced and what we had to do. We decided we weren’t going to let that happen again. The time was right for people to say, ‘Enough!’ Voters saw right through the lies and distortions.”

Jeff Fisher, the spokesman for the Washtenaw County home builders group, declined today to be interviewed for this article. “I am not comfortable making a comment at this time,” he said.

We Like The Bus
Residents of Grand Rapids and five nearby cities celebrated Tuesday’s public transit victory after voters agreed to spend an extra $95 a year for a home worth $200,000 to strengthen the regional bus system. Proponents said the margin of victory — 21, 792 to 11,213 — was made possible by the improvements and visible increase in ridership after a similar property tax increase for regional public transit was approved in 2000.  “In our city people can really see all the people riding the bus,” Jim Buck, the mayor of Grandville, told the Grand Rapids Press

Andy Bowman, the director of planning at the Grand Valley Metro Council, a 13-year-old regional planning agency, said the vote reflected the growing support for Smart Growth measures in the Grand Rapids region.

“We’ve been attempting to create a regional development framework,” he said in an interview. “Our regional development plan is occurring in conjunction with transit stops and opportunities that exist here. That includes the busways that will influence where our communities create their population centers, whether they are transit-oriented business centers or walkable neighborhoods. We would like them to line up with the bus routes. A good bus system really helps. Little by little it’s happening.” 

Many Victories Across the Country
Across the nation, voters expressed similar support for a range of Smart Growth measures and candidates. Elaine Clegg, who directed Idaho Smart Growth, an advocacy group, rode a wave of popular sentiment to become a new city council member in Boise, the state’s largest city. Ms. Clegg joins David Cieslewicz, the former director of 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin, as former Smart Growth activists who became local elected leaders. Mr. Cieslewicz earlier this year was elected mayor of Madison, Wisconsin.

By a three-to one margin Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia, approved a $150 million bond to finance open space preservation over the next decade.

Voters in two cities in Solano County, California, on the edge of the Bay Area, approved urban growth boundaries. Fairfield voters backed an urban limit line that blocks development around Travis Air Force Base and in a portion of Green Valley, north of the junction of Interstate 80 and 680, according to the Center for Planning and Development Report.

Meanwhile, nearly 70% of voters in Benicia backed an urban growth boundary initiative that blocks development for 20 years in a hilly area northeast of town know as Sky Valley. Benicia voters also rejected a City Council-sponsored growth boundary alternative.

”The Solano County results were the clearest slow-growth victories in the state during the November municipal elections,” said Paul Shigley, the CP&DR's managing editor. “Voters in Modesto approved by a two-to-one ratio an advisory measure that urges the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors to direct all urban growth to incorporated cities.”

Public Transit A Big Winner
Three quarters of the voter initiatives to improve public transit were approved, according to the Center for Transportation Excellence, a Washington-based policy center. Houston voters approved a $600 million bond to begin building 73 miles of track to expand the soon-to-be-completed 7.5 miles of light rail line downtown. Some of the funds also will be spent on buses and extra lanes for high occupancy vehicles. The city expects to raise almost $7 billion more from sales taxes, the federal government, and fares. The mayoral race in Houston produced a runoff, which will be between Bill White, a rail supporter and the former deputy energy secretary during the Clinton Administration, and Orlando Sanchez, who opposes light rail construction.

There also were important defeats for Smart Growth. Responding to a surge of spending by developers, voters in Loudon County, Virginia, one of that state’s fastest growing counties, elected a new slate of pro-growth county commissioners.

Kansas City voted in favor of a sales tax hike for increased bus service, but also defeated new money to build a light rail system there. Voters in Tucson also defeated a measure to finance a new light rail system.  And a sales tax increase was defeated in Brevard County, Florida that would have provided over $400 million for conservation. John Bailey, the associate director of Smart Growth America, a Washington-based advocacy organization, noted that the “funding would have also supported schools and other infrastructure needs so it shouldn’t be seen as a rejection of parks funding.”

Keith Schneider is a journalist, editor, and deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org.

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