Watering the Grassroots
of Oregonís Land-Use System:
Oregon Communities for a Voice in Annexations
By Kevin Frostad
Vice Chairman, OCVA
It all started with the trees. A Goal
5-protected stand of white oaks on Neabeack Hill in Philomath, a small
Willamette Valley town just west of Corvallis
In the early Ď90s, a Philomath City
Councilman arranged to add five words to the cityís comprehensive plan
that allowed a subdivision to be developed on the parcel even though this
violated land use law and Philomath's comprehensive plan. Later, that
person went on to join the cityís Planning Commission (this person was a
realtor). The Planning Commission and City Council were packed with real
estate development interests. While individually disqualifying themselves
when their own parcels were involved, they collectively "swapped
votes" with other like-minded officials to their mutual advantages.
Thus, the making of public policy for private profit, business-as-usual in
the real estate development industry, was the order of the day in
The Oregon Government Standards and
Practices Commission in Salem is understaffed and operates with a minimal
budget. The statutes that they administer have no real teeth. Redress was
not available from the state. Besides, the fact is, the government in
Philomath didnít frequently violate the letter of the laws as they were
then and, to a large extent, as they are now. But, they certainly did do
injustice to the moral and ethical framework by which they were expected
to operate as public officials.
Ninety-eight percent of the people in
Philomath didnít want Neabeack Hill developed. At public hearings
citizens' testimony was "lost" when the tape recording machine
conveniently malfunctioned. The subdivision development was approved by
the Planning Commission and then appealed to the City Council which was
subsequently denied. A lawsuit was filed against the City and LUBA
remanded it back, which the Council ignored. The case then went to the
court of appeals and a recall attempt of the Mayor and three Councilors
failed. However, a political backlash resulted. A citizens group formed a
PAC called the Committee for a Voice in Annexations with the
objective of changing the cityís charter so that, in the future,
citizens would have a meaningful voice in the process by voting on
In every legislative session, bills are
introduced to freeze-out the public from the land use process. They
usually seek to eliminate or limit who has "standing" as to who
can testify at land use hearings. Another favored objective is to speed up
the land use review process. This has led to citizen cynicism and apathy
about the process because they feel there is really no way they can be
effectively involved. This feeling is very dangerous for democracy.
Philomathís city charter was changed in
May of 1995 by a 78% to 22% margin of support. City officials refused to
acknowledge the charter change, and essentially indicated that they were
going to do whatever they wanted to do, and if the citizens didnít like
it, they could sue. A second citizensí initiative was filed that
prohibited the city from extending water and sewer lines into the urban
growth boundary without a prior vote of the people. That charter change
passed in May of 1996. Thus, two charter changes were passed on
essentially the same issue within the space of one year. Ultimately, the
citizensí group had to sue the city in circuit court in order to force
them to comply with the mandates of the newly changed charter.
These events in Philomath catalyzed a
mutual recognition of common problems with other Oregon cities. By the
fall of 1996, three other cities (Newberg, McMinnville, and Sisters) had
changed their charters to require voter approval of annexations.
The real estate development and building
industries then declared war on Home Rule, the system of self-government
that is legislatively granted to most of Oregonís 243 cities. In 1997
they attempted, with the assistance of the Governor and the Department of
Land Conservation and Development, to convince the Legislature to
invalidate existing voter annexation charter changes and make it illegal
for any other cities to enact similar changes in the future. Senate Bill
1137 was introduced, and the fight was on!
Oregon Communities for a Voice in
Annexations (OCVA) was formed in December of 1996 in self-defense in
order to protect the rights of citizens who had worked hard, in good
faith, to change their city charters. The OCVAís mission was defined as
"protecting and promoting citizen involvement in land use
issues." All of the political pundits gave the OCVA zero chance of
prevailing against the Association of Oregon Realtors, the Oregon Building
Industry Association, Governor Kitzhaber, and the DLCD. It was truly a
David and Goliath battle that lasted for seven months. The OCVA had no
lawyers, no lobbyists, no big campaign contributors or money, but, they
did have the Courts and local control (Home Rule) on their side.
The OCVA also had a very important thing on
its side, something that is revered nationwide. That was the fact that
Oregon has the best land use system in the country. The cornerstone of
that process is Goal #1, Citizen Involvement.
The first Oregon city to change its charter
to require a vote on annexations was Corvallis in 1977. That action was
challenged in the courts (Stewart vs Corvallis (1980) and Heritage
Enterprises vs Corvallis (1985)). Through the appeals process, the
litigation proceeded to the Oregon Supreme Court. The high court decision
held that there were "two shoes" to land use policy in Oregon.
One is statutory. That is, elected officials consider state law, local
ordinances, and zoning to make quasi-judicial decisions. The other
"shoe" is political. That voters can consider
"political" matters is constitutional because of the significant
impacts that growth can have on any given community.
Whatever the issue today-- overcrowded
schools, environmental degradation, road rage, increasing water-sewer
rates and property taxes-- they all have one common denominator: the
rampant, out-of-control growth that is occurring in a large portion of our
state is ruining our quality of life in Oregon. It is also threatening our
ability to maintain public services.
Cities have not been able to keep pace with
the infrastructure needed to accommodate the growth rate. Citizens have
developed a cynical attitude about this process, so they have resorted to
Oregonís "fourth branch of government," the initiative
petition. Born in 1895 as a reaction to legislative corruption, it is what
The People resort to when they feel that Salem is not taking care of
business. The vote-on-annexation debate has been a part of this reaction.
Several issues have been articulated very well along the way. Voting on
annexations is only the tip of the iceberg. The issues behind voter
annexation are the real story.
The 1989 Systems Development Act was
watered-down at the behest of the building industry so that growthís
fiscal impact on schools, police and fire protection, and libraries was
removed as criteria for assessing development impact fees. When parents
attend Planning Commission or City Council hearings on development
applications and express concerns about school capacity, they are told,
"We canít talk about that!" That seems crazy to them. During
the legislative battle over voting on annexations this situation was a
strong argument for proponents. The fact that impact fees are wholly
inadequate was another. People felt forced to comply with the subsidizing
of increased traffic, more crime, further overcrowding of schools, all
without the benefit of expected property tax reductions. Communities were,
in effect, committing collective suicide while watching their quality of
life crumble, and paying to do so.
State-sponsored initiatives such as the
Strategic Investment Program, designed in the 80s as a response to
dislocations in the timber industry, have been misused to draw
multinational corporate expansion into existing population centers via
huge tax giveaways. These incentives require large infrastructure
extensions (water, sewer, electricity, roads, etc.). They also devour
farmland, forests, and wetlands. Citizens feel that they are giving it
away on both the front and back ends.
During the '97 legislative debate on SB
1137 (and another incarnation, SB 500), citizens from all over the state
and from all walks of life showed up in Salem. Many elected officials,
city administrators, and Planning Commissioners expressed their
displeasure at the proposed suspension of Home Rule. If this were allowed
for annexations, the precedent would be set by which Salem could dictate
its wishes to communities on a host of other local issues. Citizen
Involvement, the lynchpin of Oregonís land use system, was in danger of
being swept away.
The defenders of votes on annexations lost
in the Republican-dominated State Senate. With help from 1000 Friends of
Oregon and the League of Women Voters, the OCVA and their supporters made
an impassioned argument in the Oregon House of Representatives that people
have a right to be involved in the destinies of their own communities. As
the House debate intensified something interesting happened. Citizens
became convinced that there was something they could do in defense
of their rights. Apathy and cynicism faded away. The public appeared to
testify in droves. Telephone calls, letters, e-mails and faxes arrived by
the truckload. We also had many of the state's leading newspapers come out
in support of the will of the voters and home rule.
The battle raged hot and heavy until 9 p.m.
on July 5, 1997 when the offensive bill was finally defeated. The
Legislature adjourned, and two yearsí time was secured so that other
Oregon cities might conduct debates on the merits of voting on annexations
in their communities. More citizens had the opportunity to ask, "Who
benefits? Whoís paying? How much growth do we have to take? Is there
anything we can do to regain control of our communities?"
The political firestorm ignited by the
vote-on-annexation debate stimulated Governor Kitzhaber to appoint a
special task force to study the impacts and assess the benefits versus the
costs of growth in Oregon. When the task force was convened in April 1998
the OCVA, unlike the Builders and the Realtors, was not invited to sit at
the table. However, major political policymakers like Vera Katz, Mike
Burton, and Julie Hammerstad did participate. Initially, public
involvement was designed to be kept to a minimum, but the process was soon
out-of-containment. The task force ended up holding statewide public
hearings to receive citizen input at the request of OCVA. The task forceís
report was issued in January 1999. Containing many valuable insights, the
report concluded that, "Business, civic, and government leaders
must constructively respond to growing citizen concerns about
growth-related issues and quality of life in communities. The intensity of
concern has reached the point that failure to act may jeopardize Oregonís
land use planning program and the economic future of the state."
Oregonís 1999 Legislative Assembly
finally ground to a halt last July 24th. Characterized by 1000
Friends of Oregon as "the worst Legislature in the history of Oregonís
planning program," the session once again saw the introduction of
legislation proposed to invalidate existing vote-on-annexation charter
changes and to make any such changes illegal in the future (HB 3389,
introduced by Rep. Ryan Deckert D-Beaverton). That this legislation died
in committee was due, in large part, to the outpouring of citizen
indignation that followed its introduction.
Along with this victory for the OCVA, there
followed a bitter legislative defeat. The OCVAís main legislative agenda
in the í99 Session was its support for legislation that would have
indemnified citizens who testify in government hearings against being
subjected to frivolous lawsuits designed to stifle public involvement.
Known as SLAPP suits (i.e., Strategic Lawsuits Against Public
Participation), this form of legal and economic terrorism is a nationally
recognized problem. The issues involved go right to the heart of Americansí
constitutional First Amendment right to petition government.
In concert with the DLCD, Rep. Kurt
Schrader, D-Canby, introduced anti-SLAPP suit legislation in the form of
HB 2805. Thousands of citizens as well as most of the newspaper editorial
pages in the state supported the bill. After harrowing public testimony
documenting the problem in Oregon, HB 2805 was overwhelmingly passed out
of the House on a 49 to 9 vote.
It was at this point that the development
interests, fearing the loss of their ability to sue their opponents into
silence, contacted their ally Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Neil
Bryant (R-Bend). Chairman Bryant was more than happy to gut the anti-SLAPP
suit legislation before putting it on the floor, where the Republican
majority voted to table it for the duration of the session, effectively
killing it. OCVA will work to build a bipartisan political coalition to
pass anti-SLAPP suit legislation in the upcoming 2001 session.
As of now 30 Oregon cities, over ten
percent of the total (243 cities) and representing almost 500,000
citizens, has enacted charter changes requiring voter approval of
annexations. OCVA has membership in 52 Oregon cities. In May of
2000, Salem, at 130,000 people, became the largest city to date to approve
an annexation charter amendment.
New grassroots organizations like
Alternatives to Growth Oregon (which focuses on the larger underlying
issues of population and consumption growth versus sustainability) have
entered the fray. Professional analyses documenting the publicly
subsidized costs of growth in Oregon are beginning to appear. Concerned
citizens are muscling their way back into the land use debate in ever more
sophisticated ways. All across the country, from California to Maine,
newspaper headlines reflect citizenís concerns over rampant growth. It
is not just a red-hot political issue for Oregon. As the 21st
century begins, the table has been set for a healthy and vigorous debate
as to what the shape of Oregonís future will be.
This page last modified on 2005-09-19 08:39.