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Proposed Initiative Could Backfire, Weaken Basic Land-Use Safeguards

Wed., March 8, 1995

A physician/ gentleman rancher thins trees along his stream to control flooding, then is stalked and harassed by regulators who deem his actions “might lead to sunburned fish.”

Sunburned fish?

A focus group of Seattle city-dwellers brought together to talk about property rights simply can’t relate to the concept. Say what? Property rights?

Finally, to help them comprehend, a facilitator draws a parallel to privacy rights. Imagine renting an apartment, he says, then being told the bathroom is off limits.

Oh, yeah. Got it.

The above vignettes are from a White Paper on “Property Rights and Policy Wrongs” written by Linda Woodruff Matson, former state director of the National Federation of Small Business.

Release of the paper by the Washington Institute for Policy Studies, a conservative think tank, coincides with efforts to enact a sweeping property rights initiative.

It is contained in a petition to the Washington Legislature, signed by more than a quarter-million state residents, which aims to roll back decades of bureaucratic encroachment.

The initiative says if state or local regulation of private property use to serve a public purpose results in any loss of value, taxpayers must compensate the property owner.

The petition to the legislature gives lawmakers three options:

Pass the initiative as is, in which case it becomes law without even going to the governor.

Do nothing, in which case the initiative automatically goes on the November ballot.

Or enact an alternative version, in which case both measures go to the voters this fall.

Meantime, the initiative has breezed through the House 69-27. But it faces much slower going in the Senate, where even advocates are not overly optimistic.

Matson told me her White Paper aspires to “raise the consciousness of people who own property, so that responsible and corrective action can and will be taken” - if not by lawmakers, then by the people.

But two aspects of the initiative concern me:

Was the collection of signatures tainted?

And does the initiative as written permit adequate planning and land-use regulation in the public interest?

Strapped for signatures and funds, Initiative 164 was headed nowhere until real estate agents, home builders and timber interests took over, injecting $200,000 to hire professional, paid, signature-gatherers.

Voila! Instant success. But hardly a process that inspires pride and confidence.

Not surprisingly, big business and timber barons are suspected of trying to circumvent basic environmental laws.

A report by Lynda V. Mapes of The Spokesman-Review sized up the situation this way:

“Billed as a grass-roots effort for the little guy, a property-rights initiative sweeping the Legislature is bankrolled by businesses that critics say will be the real winners if it passes.”

Homeowners and taxpayers will suffer, opponents charge. Planning and zoning will be paralyzed. Taverns and apartment houses will mushroom next to homes.

The net effect would be to jeopardize the property values of some by encouraging and fostering ill-suited and unwise development by others.

A Spokane City official raised the specter of a “glue factory” going into a residential neighborhood.

Initiative sponsors, on the other hand, charge environmentalist and entrenched big government with fear-mongering.

They say regulatory extremism is strangling “little guys” who own property.

They insist that the language of the initiative adequately covers planning and zoning functions. In this regard, they point to a clause that seems to imply the government can act to prevent and abate “public nuisances.”

But what constitutes a public nuisance? The petition doesn’t say.

This is slipshod recognition of allimportant planning and land-use regulatory functions that must be addressed in a more definitive manner in the public interest.

Should lawmakers enact a measure closing this loophole, and send it and the initiative both to the ballot next November for the public to make a choice?

The Washington Institute for Policy Studies seems to anticipate just such an outcome.

In releasing Linda Matson’s paper, the think tank said, Washington citizens “will likely” have to vote on the initiative “and perhaps” on a legislative alternative.

Rightly so, I think.


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