Md. edgy as Ore. eases sprawl curbs

Referendum: Some here fear ripples that could endanger the state's Smart Growth policies.

December 02, 2004|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Oregon, a state that has long prided itself on having the nation's toughest curbs on suburban sprawl, appears on the verge of relaxing those limits or being forced to pay untold millions of taxpayer dollars it doesn't have to landowners affected by the restrictions.

Last month, as the majority of them were backing Democrat John Kerry for president, Oregon's usually liberal voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative entitling landowners to be compensated if any environmental or zoning regulations reduced the value of their property or to get an exemption from those rules.

Known as Measure 37, it takes effect today. While it is shaking up Oregon's vaunted 31-year-old system for preserving the rural landscape, its tremors are being felt across the country, including in Maryland.

"The implications are devastating," said former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who in the late 1990s pioneered a less regulatory type of growth management in Maryland that popularized the term Smart Growth.

Glendening, president of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute in Washington and an advocate of limiting suburban sprawl nationwide, said this week that Oregon voters were misled Nov. 2 into supporting a sweeping attack on the state's longstanding growth-management system by the ballot measure's seemingly simple appeal to fairness.

"The slogan was `Government should pay if it affects your property,'" he said. Glendening said he expects property-rights activists behind that measure to push similar initiatives in other states.

Supporters of the Oregon measure agree that their success should serve as a warning elsewhere to government overreaching. Its passage by a 61-39 percent margin reflected the public's turning away from heavy-handed regulations that hurt individual property owners, they said.

"Measure 37 was a no-brainer, even in a blue state like Oregon," said David Hunnicutt, executive director of Oregonians in Action, a property-rights group that sponsored the ballot initiative. "We see this as an opportunity to have both planning and fair treatment for property owners."

This is not the first challenge to Oregon's land-use laws. The state's voters passed a similar measure four years ago, in the form of an amendment to the state constitution, but it was overturned by the courts.

No one knows how many property owners might be eligible to file claims under the measure that takes effect today and applies retroactively. But Eugene and Barbara Prete, who were among the chief petitioners for the initiative, expect to be among the first today to demand compensation or a building permit.

Eugene Prete, 65, said the couple have been thwarted by government regulations from putting a house on 20 acres they own in rural eastern Oregon.

Agricultural preservation rules adopted after they bought the land in 1990 require anyone seeking to build a farmhouse to show at least $80,000 a year has been made in farming the surrounding land, Prete said.

He and his wife have scratched a few thousand dollars a year out of the arid soil by growing grass seed, he said, and a request for a waiver was denied.

"That was going to be our retirement house," he said. "That's where we were going to have horses and all. We've got everything there except us."

Defenders of the state's sprawl controls say there was room to make them fairer, but they say the vast majority of residents support the current system. They worry about what might happen to a landscape that has remained overwhelmingly rural and scenic as cities have grown denser.

"Now, there's a very real possibility that if you can get a package [sewage] treatment plant to work and can plunge a well, you can build anywhere," said Bob Stacey, executive director of 1000 Friends of Oregon, a citizens group that pushed for the adoption of the origional state land-use law 31 years ago.

Supporters of the measure dismiss such talk and say sprawl won't gobble up the Oregon countryside.

"Only 2 percent of Oregon is urbanized," said John Charles, environmental policy director for the Cascades Policy Institute, a conservative think tank there. "There's a lot of room to build a house, build a school. By any measurable parameter of air or water, nobody's going to know any different."

Most Maryland officials say they don't expect an Oregon-style challenge to this state's Smart Growth policies, in part because they do not impose statewide zoning restrictions, as Oregon does. Instead, the state attempts to discourage sprawl by directing funds for roads, sewers and other infrastructure to existing communities.

Though he has been criticized for being less aggressive in carrying out the Smart Growth law and policies enacted under his predecessor, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. remains committed to them in concept, said spokesman Henry Fawell.

"Unless there's a massive down-zoning that would cause this groundswell for compensation, I don't see it happening in Maryland," said Joseph W. Rutter, Anne Arundel County's planning director.

Others are not so sure.

"Oregon is still the premier state in terms of land-use issues," said Gerrit Knaap, director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education at the University of Maryland. "If this happens in Oregon, it strikes fear into planners everywhere."

Knaap, a former Oregonian, has studied that state's land-use system and co-wrote a paper concluding that it has largely succeeded in containing sprawl.

He noted that voters supported the 31-year-old law in three prior referendums, and he predicted growing public pressure to amend the compensation measure once its costs become clearer.

Sun staff writer Larry Carson contributed to this article.

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