Narrow failure of land-use bill proves object lesson in lobbying Home builders vs. environmentalists and local governments

July 14, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A platoon of lobbyists, a surge of campaign donations and thousands of phone calls, faxes and letters were not enough last night to save legislation that had been pushed by property owners seeking more control over the use of their land.

The Senate voted 52-42 to take up the legislation, short of the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster that reflected opposition from the White House, environmentalists, and local and state governments.

But even in defeat, the bill served as an object lesson in how special interests can direct legislation, from its inception to its conclusion.

The bill's principles were drafted by the home builders' lobby, which welcomed its introduction last fall with $173,000 in campaign donations. Grass-roots lobbying pushed it through the House, and a phalanx of lobbyists greeted senators last evening as they rushed to cast their votes.

Still, the bill's supporters fell eight votes short.

"Senators are much more independent [than House members] in terms of their thinking," Jerry M. Howard, the National Association of Home Builders' chief lobbyist, conceded in defeat. Howard vowed to continue the fight, first in the November elections, then back in Congress next year.

The legislation would have made it easier and faster for property owners to fight unfavorable zoning rulings or regulations or to seek compensation for such decisions in federal court.

The failure of the bill, which was opposed by the National Governors' Association, the National Association of Counties, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National League of Cities and U.S. Conference of Mayors -- all of which feared an erosion of their authority over land use -- should have come as little surprise. The legislation advanced as far as it did largely on the power of a textbook campaign mounted by home builders and property developers.

"Clearly, this bill would not exist, let alone come up for a vote, if it wasn't for home builders," charged Glenn P. Sugameli, an attorney with the National Wildlife Federation, who helped rally opposition. "It almost became a macho show for them to prove their strength."

Advocates said the legislation would have delivered property owners from the bureaucratic nightmares they often face in trying to develop property or shield their land from restrictive land-use or zoning regulations. A study by a law firm involved in the legislation found it took an average of 9 1/2 years for land owners to have their day in federal court.

'Warmer and colder'

"It's like a kids' game of warmer and colder," said Nancie G. Marzulla, president of Defenders of Property Rights, a landowners' advocacy group. "Local boards take the latest plan and say: 'Not quite. Try again.' But it's not a funny game if you're a developer having thousands of dollars being chewed up every day."

But opponents called the bill nothing short of federalization of land-use control. Builders could exploit their new rights in federal court, opponents charged, to bludgeon localities into approving projects on environmentally sensitive wetlands or seedy adult bookstores near schools.

"This was politics," shrugged Sen. James M. Jeffords, a moderate Vermont Republican who voted against the bill despite being targeted by the home builders. "Obviously, when a certain industry feels they have an issue that's important and they come up with their own bill, that's special interest" legislation.

The powerful home builders' association last year retained the Maryland law firm of Linowes and Blocher to "frame the concepts" of legislation that would short-circuit the usual plodding approval process and push land-use decisions into federal court, said John J. Delaney, a partner at the firm.

The concepts that Delaney drafted became a bill, introduced in the Senate on Sept. 23. Two days later, the bill gained its first hearing in the House. The next day, the home builders' political action committee distributed $173,000 to federal candidates, the most money the PAC had given out in a single day this election cycle, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics.

The bill passed the House a month later, 248-178. House members had to run a gantlet of home-builder lobbyists just to reach the floor to cast their ballots.

The cost of lobbying

So far, the homebuilders' PAC has doled out $815,566 for the 1998 election cycle, 67 percent of it to Republicans. An additional $89,000 has gone to the political parties as unregulated "soft money." A second surge of giving came in May, when the builders' PAC ponied up $156,000 more.

Howard, the home builders' chief lobbyist, denied any connection between campaign contributions and the legislation, noting that any donation predicated on the recipient's position on an issue would be illegal.

"I want to get this bill passed very badly, but not so badly that I'd do something illegal," he said.

But Howard detailed just how hard the home builders and developers have pushed the bill. So-called "blast faxes" have gone out to 17,000 builders, imploring them to contact their senators, especially eight Republicans and six Democrats who went into last night's vote wavering.

Lobbyists buttonholed senators up to the last moment, and radio ads flooded the airwaves in 10 states.

The lobbying blitz had worked in the House. But it could not overcome opposition in the Senate, where moderate Northeastern Republicans with an environmental bent proved the difference.

Maryland Democrats Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes voted against the measure.

Pub Date: 7/14/98

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