The voters say 'Enough!' to sprawl

December 24, 1996|By Neal R. Peirce

ELECTION RETURNS suggest that after a half-century of recklessly sprawling physical growth, Americans are ready to turn a new leaf on land conservation. Landslides backed proposals to fund more than $4 billion worth of parks, open spaces, greenways and farmland preservation.

In fast-growing Gwinnett County, outside Atlanta, voters approved a penny sales tax to raise $400 million for capital improvements, with $100 million earmarked for parkland acquisition, sidewalks and trails.

In Rhode Island, voters said yes to a $4 million bond for buying development rights to farmland and open space. Missouri voters handily endorsed a sales tax set aside for state parks and soil conservation. California passed a $995 million state bond for restoration in the San Francisco Bay area and a $319 million assessment in Los Angeles County for regional and community parks and recreation.

In past years, citizen signature-gathering campaigns were often necessary to get such measures on ballots. This year, according to Phyllis Myers, editor of the Trust for Public Land's GreenSense newsletter, mainstream politicos were scurrying to sponsor or endorse the proposals.

New York's Republican governor, George Pataki, for example, was the author of a $1.7 billion bond proposal to upgrade drinking-water facilities, bolster local watershed plans and protect open space, parklands and farmlands. Backed by an unusual alliance of business, labor and environmentalists, the measure passed by 56 percent to 44 percent.

Ms. Myers points to increasing sophistication by conservation advocates in fashioning measures to appeal to multiple constituencies, then calibrating voters' tax and spending tolerance. The Los Angeles County bond issue and one in Dade County, Florida ($200 million), for example, were both advertised to further ''safe neighborhood parks.'' Both appealed simultaneously to city and suburban voters by promising to refurbish and add urban playgrounds while providing expanded greenways and wildlife protection.

Keeping the cost down

In Dade, backers could claim the average cost per household per year would be a scant $8, in Los Angeles only $6 to $7 annually.

But just saying ''green is good'' didn't carry the vote everywhere. Ms. Myers cited conservationist defeats on banning forest clear-cutting in Maine, taxing sugar production 1 percent to restore the Everglades, and reversals (often from overconfidence or poor campaign planning) in Colorado, Illinois, Ohio and elsewhere.

And there was another irony: In a number of states, voters simultaneously OK'd conservation measures while voting for caps on public spending or supermajorities to raise taxes. Californians approved Proposition 218, requiring voter approval for all general tax hikes and two-thirds votes to fund assessment districts for parks or open space.

Voter skepticism about government and spending makes the Election Day victories for land conservation all the more remarkable. Clearly, people have deep concern about keeping green spaces. Hence the idea, pioneered in Oregon, to stop leapfrog development across the open countryside by confining new subdivisions and commercial development to agreed-on areas.

San Jose, northern California's largest city, set a growth boundary last spring. On November 5, four smaller Bay Area communities -- by vote margins of 59 percent to 71 percent -- took the same step. Another six voted boundaries legislatively this year, and many more are expected.

The strong message from voters, says Greenbelt Alliance director Jim Sayer in San Francisco, is ''that the environmental and economic costs of sprawl are too high, that there is a better way to plan our communities.''

Saving natural America is an issue on which voters are well ahead of the politicians. One detects little intent to ride (x roughshod over private property rights, or spend public money recklessly. But Americans are looking for ways to protect land. The election returns seem to prove it.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 12/24/96

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