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At the Polls, A Good Day For Quality of Life

Trend is strong for land preservation, managing growth

November 14, 2002 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Patrick Owen
  A new face of Smart Growth: Michigan Democratic Governor-elect Jennifer Granholm who swept into office on a platform that promised to diminish congestion, improve land use planning, and reduce sprawl.

If there was ever a doubt that Smart Growth is the most influential civic movement in the United States, Election Day put it to rest. While war and fear dominated at the national level, many state and local elections were about something much more promising and hopeful. Voters by the millions elected scores of candidates, and approved hundreds of new taxpayer investments and regulatory safeguards dedicated to countering sprawl and improving the quality of life.

At first blush it’s difficult to reconcile such contrary outcomes. But looking at the election results more closely yields a different conclusion: Americans are responding to new threats to their way of life in two ways that are oddly consistent.
At the national level voters spooked by terrorism and resigned to war trust the Republicans to be more ruthless about facing down foreign enemies than the Democrats. At the state and local levels, though, partnerships are displacing bitter partisanship and voters are apparently more ready than they’ve been in decades to really ensure homeland security. How? By improving energy efficiency, being more scrupulous about how communities are built, and becoming more intent on producing a durable prosperity that is based on the quality of the places they live.
Majorities for New Approach
That’s why all across the country, by overwhelming majorities in most cases, voters supported new spending and activist government programs to build new public transit systems, save farmland and open space, strengthen local zoning to block sprawling construction, and invest in urban neighborhoods.

Voters, it turns out, don’t hate government as much as the right says and the left fears.  The emerging priorities of the 21st century – relieving congestion, stopping sprawl, improving water quality, redeveloping neighborhoods, investing in downtowns, and making urban areas safe – can only be solved with politics based on consensus, and on decisions made as a community. In fact when it comes to solving the really tough social and economic problems, voters recognize that government is really the only place to turn. It’s just that voters want government to be a fairer forum for public debate, to embrace new values, and to behave differently to improve how we live.
By far the most telling evidence of the powerful constituency for growth management is the consistently high approval rates for property tax increases and bonds to block sprawl. On Election Day voters in 79 communities in 22 states agreed to spend $2.6 billion to protect farmland and open space. They approved some 80 percent of the ballot measures that called for more public investment to put land off limits to sprawling development, according to a tally by Trust For Public Land, a national conservation organization.
Ride The Train
Major investments in light rail and other alternatives to roads also enjoyed broad support. Of the seven statewide transportation initiatives proposed, four passed, a powerful indication that more Americans are prepared to use less fuel and ride something different to work. Miami voters overwhelmingly approved a half-cent sales tax that will double the city's bus fleet, make the airport accessible by light rail, and establish a regional transportation authority.

And Americans are no longer rushing to spend money for new highways. The conclusion that new pavement invites more congestion is apparently sinking in. By a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent, voters in northern Virginia turned down a $5 billion sales tax referendum for transportation that Smart Growth advocates criticized for not putting enough money into transit.

No one suggests that the development interests that support sprawl have been defeated. They have not. Minnesota's new Republican Lieutenant Governor Carol Molnau campaigned against light rail construction, proclaiming that she has “asphalt in my veins."
A New Face of Smart Growth
It’s just that Smart Growth ideas, as well as candidates that campaigned on Smart Growth platforms, won many more times than they lost. 

In Michigan, Democratic Attorney General Jennifer Granholm swept into the governor’s office by doing better than expected in the state’s rapidly developing and solidly Republican western and northern counties. Her strong showing was due in part to the coherent plan she prepared to diminish congestion, improve land use planning, and reduce sprawl in Michigan, which is consuming 100,000 acres of farmland and open space a year.

Voters also supported ballot referendums to reverse the engines of sprawl. In California’s Simi Valley, and in Santa Paula voters rejected efforts by developers to expand urban growth boundaries to accommodate more sprawl, in both cases by more than 60 percent margins.

Even before the World Trade Center towers fell, opinion polls showed a new public willingness to see government as useful to the American experience and for advancing community values such as improving schools and rebuilding neighborhoods. The 2002 election results amplify that message. Voters in ever-greater numbers and with remarkable consistency are approving a future based on designing great places that are greener, safer, and more prosperous. The energy for such change was high before September 11 and has only become more intense in the year since.

Keith Schneider, a regular contributor to The New York Times, The Detroit Free Press, and Gristmagazine.com, is program director of the Michigan Land Use Institute, one of the largest state-based Smart Growth advocacy organizations. Reach him at keith@mlui.org. For more commentary see the Elm Street Writers Group.

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