Conservative Spotlight: Oregonians In Action

Fed up with super-strict environmental land-use regulations, a conservative property-rights group decided to take a solution directly to voters via a ballot measure last November. It passed overwhelmingly. And to the surprise of many, it happened in Oregon, hardly a state dominated by conservatives.

The group, Oregonians In Action, dedicated since 1989 to easing the state’s land-use rules, championed Measure 37, which offers compensation to property owners who can prove Oregon’s environmental laws have hurt them financially. Starting in December, Oregonians began filing claims with the state or their local governments.

The measure’s success–it passed by a 60%-to-40% margin–was yet another triumph for Oregonians In Action and its executive director, David Hunnicutt. With the passage of Measure 37, the organization established itself as one of the most effective interest groups in the state, having three of its ballot measures approved by voters in the past six years. It spent about $1.1 million on behalf of Measure 37, which amounted to only a quarter of what opponents forked out to defeat it.

Add to this the liberal tendencies of Oregon voters–all of the state’s elected officials are Democrats–and the group has truly made a name for itself. Even the liberal New York Times fawned over the success of Oregonians In Action in a front-page article last November. But with the three victories at the ballot box, Ross Day, the group’s director of legal affairs, said there are plenty of other challenges on the horizon since county and city governments are filled with environmentalist lawyers opposed to property rights.

“Oregon’s land-use planning system is supposed to protect and preserve prime natural resource lands by directing urban development to urban areas,” Day told HUMAN EVENTS. “That makes sense. If we have a natural resource economy, it makes sense to preserve the land that’s most productive.”

The problem, Day explained, is that when Oregon adopted its land-use rules 31 years ago–under the direction of Republicans, he noted–it had laudable goals that were later tarnished by environmentalists. Imaginary zones separating urban areas from rural communities were drawn, making nearly all of Oregon’s undeveloped countryside untouchable because it was classified as forest or farmland. When the state Department of Land Conservation and Development was created in 1973, local governments lost clout.

Day cited the case of a chip manufacturer that wanted to build a plant in Yamhill County, southwest of Portland. But when county officials told the company it would take 180 days to get approval just to apply for a building permit, the company opted instead to build in Arizona. Day also recounted the story of 92-year-old Dorothy English, who served as a vocal campaigner for Measure 37. For decades, she has been unable to win approval to divide her land and sell it.

The combination of angry rural landowners and the support of enough city dwellers handed Oregonians In Action its decisive victory last November, Day said. “I call it a perfect storm,” he told HUMAN EVENTS. “You had people who had invested in property for their retirement. They have kids who have moved into the urban areas. The kids found out that their parents’ retirement is gone. So you’ve got people in both the urban and rural areas upset because their parents had their retirement taken from them.”

Now, with the ability to appeal to state or local governments for compensation, Day said Oregonians have moved a step closer to mending the flawed land-use rules. (If a county cannot afford a financial settlement, it must exempt the property owner from the land-use regulation in question.) In some of Oregon’s rural counties, changes will be noticeable, Day said, but problems are likely to persist in liberal bastions like Portland (Multnomah County) and Eugene (Lane County). For that reason, he said, Oregonians In Action has no plans to retreat.

The state’s restrictions on forests and farmland–once it is zoned as either, it is virtually untouchable, Day explained–is the next task for Oregonians In Action to tackle. The state legislature convened earlier this month, and with its greater clout from the ballot measures, the group plans to take its case to the lawmakers. The state’s Democrat governor, Ted Kulongoski, has previously brushed aside the interests of Oregonians In Action, but he, too, might see the victory on Measure 37 as a signal from voters, Day speculated.

Nevertheless, the success of Oregonians In Action has transformed it from a little-known property-rights group into a populist crusader against government regulations. “We get painted as the extremists,” Day told HUMAN EVENTS. “But we’re probably more in touch with what Oregonians want and believe than anyone else in the state.”