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Bush, Kerry Supporters Agree on New Development Strategy

On Nov. 2, land use reforms won in a landslide

December 3, 2004 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Voters in the Denver region approved a sales tax increase to build 119 miles of light and commuter rail lines and other public transit facilities to expand the existing system. The tax bill will be $4.7 billion.

One of the striking results of the 2004 election, first reported by the Los Angeles Times, is that 97 of the nation’s 100 fastest growing counties supported George W. Bush and delivered half of the president’s 3.5 million-vote victory margin. Perhaps even more striking, though, is this fact: Many of these same voters, people who are passionate about curbing taxes and limiting the activities of the federal and state governments, not only approved an array of new initiatives to ease congestion, conserve farmland and open space, and manage development, they also approved the tax increases to pay for them.

Examples are legion. They range from Douglas County, Colo., a suburb of Denver and, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the nation’s third fastest growing county, to Osceola and Lake Counties in Florida, the 18th and 34th fastest growing, to Acme Township in Grand Traverse County, Michigan’s third-fastest growing county. All voted heavily for Mr. Bush and also supported raising taxes to finance Smart Growth initiatives.

Combine these with similar decisions in pro-Kerry counties such as Pitkin County, Colo., Volusia County, Fla., and other places in Massachusetts and California, and an undeniable pattern emerges: Smart Growth appears to be transcending partisanship. 

Fresh, Hopeful Politics
In Douglas County, voters backed Mr. Bush over Mr. Kerry by a two-to-one margin and joined other voters in the Denver region in approving a sales tax increase to build 119 miles of light and commuter rail lines and other public transit facilities. The tax bill will be $4.7 billion. In Osceola and Lake Counties, they backed Mr. Bush and approved property tax increases to preserve environmentally sensitive lands. In Acme Township, they backed the president by a 60-40 margin and approved a property tax increase to conserve farmland.

In Pitkin County, which Mr. Kerry won by 38 points, voters approved a sales tax increase to expand its excellent regional bus system. In Volusia County, they approved an urban growth boundary to discourage development in wetlands and forests. And voters in 10 Massachusetts towns agreed to hike property taxes for open space, historic preservation, and affordable housing projects.

The consistency with which suburban and rural voters of both parties are choosing to build rail lines, institute growth limits, permanently secure farmland, and establish new planning measures reflects something fresh and hopeful in American culture and politics. Residents at the local level appear eager to do something they are increasingly reluctant to allow within states and the federal government: Encourage innovation and experimentation at taxpayer expense. Moreover, the broad-based coalitions that are spontaneously forming at the local and regional level throughout the country point to a popular desire, largely ignored in coverage of the 2004 national election, to actively address some of the meta-trends in energy, demographic, housing, and employment that are rapidly altering the quality of life in U.S. communities of every size.

The nation’s population, for instance, is expected to reach 420 million by mid-century, according to the U.S. Census, or 140 million more people than in 2000. Unless patterns of development change substantially, swift population growth could result in eight sprawling and torturously congested “supercity” regions, according to a recent analysis by the University of Pennsylvania.

But even projections like that do not always guarantee Smart Growth victories, even in some states that are traditional leaders on such issues. Many developers remain unrelenting in their campaign against restrictions that limit their ability to build anything, anywhere. For example Oregon voters, by a 20-point margin, approved a measure to compensate landowners for property value losses that may have occurred as a result of the state’s restrictive land use laws. The vote could undermine that state’s pioneering land planning program, which has protected tens of millions of acres of farmland and forest.

By the Numbers
But, considered as a whole, the steps Americans are taking to oversee development appear to point the way toward a new bottom-up national growth strategy that emphasizes local wisdom, a willingness to invest, an allegiance to environmental conservation, and an understanding that communities do not have to roll over to sprawl. How communities face up to rapid demographic, economic, and environmental changes is now, arguably, the only vital public interest conversation in America that liberals and conservatives can engage without rancor.

The overall totals from national surveys of last month’s local and regional Smart Growth ballot issues are impressive. According to the Trust For Public Land, a national land conservancy based in San Francisco, 111 communities in 25 states passed $11 billion in conservation ballot measures last month, including $2.4 billion to conserve land for parks and open space. Since 1998, the group said, Americans have approved 935 of 1,215 conservation ballot measures, or 77 percent.

“Voter reaction to the pressures of uncontrolled growth and sprawl is bipartisan,” said Ernest Cook, the trust’s director of conservation finance.

Communities also are approving a broad number of land use regulatory tools to direct new growth away from environmentally sensitive areas and to encourage building that does not take up as much land.

In some cases, voters approved growth boundaries to limit the spread of new development, or approved limits that will dramatically slow the number of new buildings allowed. For instance, eight of every ten voters in Kingsburg, a city in Kern County, Calif., approved a measure to cap the number of building permits to 115 per year, according to an election summary from California Planning and Development Report. Pleasanton, Calif. residents approved a measure to give themselves the authority to approve or disapprove new development on a 318-acre city-owned parcel of land. 

And of the 28 ballot measures for reducing traffic congestion and financing public transit improvements, 22 passed on November 2, according to the Center for Transportation Excellence, a transit advocacy and research group in Washington, D.C.  Austin, Tex. approved spending less than $100 million for a new commuter rail line. Almost six of every ten voters in Maricopa County, Ariz. approved continuation of the half-cent transportation sales tax through 2025, which will raise $8.5 billion for the county's $15.8 billion road and transit improvement plan. The plan includes spending $2.3 billion to expand the city’s new 20-mile light rail system that is under construction in Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa and Glendale.

The national popularity of such new lines — more than $40 billion in new local transit spending was authorized this year — is consistent with what happened last summer in Michigan when 13 of 14 ballot measures to improve public transit were approved.

“Local growth-related ballot measures appear to be thriving,” said Phyllis Myers, a Washington, D.C.-based  adviser on conservation policy and finance whose State Resource Strategies consulting firm documents ballot trends. “They are moving out of the traditional hotbeds, like California’s Bay Area and Southern Florida to other fast-growing sections of these states and cropping up in other states in the West, and increasingly in places like Michigan, New York state, Ohio and Massachusetts."Keith Schneider, a journalist, is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org.

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