Smart Growth 2000: Bumps And Breakthroughs

By: - December 27, 2000 12:00 am

The “smart growth” movement is growing up, gaining attention, developing conflicting voices, scoring victories on some issues, taking its lumps on others.

Most of all, this movement to stem sprawl and sustain America’s town and city fabric has clearly “arrived.” Just check the hundreds of related measures on state and local ballots last November and it’s clear smart growth will feature prominently in Americans’ political decision-making for years to come.

The push to create or expand parks and open spaces is the movement’s strong suit, according to Phyllis Myers of State Resource Strategies, whose full report on growth-related issues in the 2000 elections, commissioned by the Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy, will be released in January (

Broward County, Florida, for example, required no recount of its landslide vote for a million bond to upgrade parks and purchase 1,425 acres of fast-disappearing greenspace and open space.

In Seattle, a million “Parks for All” measure for public open space, neighborhood parks, wetlands and greenbelts was approved–a vital step, said Mayor Paul Schell, as the city’s population density increases and vacant land disappears.

Ohio linked rural open space and farmland preservation with urban brownfield restorations, granting million for each in a bond measure backed by a majority coalition of city, suburban and rural residents.

Across the country, the Land Trust Alliance calculates, 175 of 208 of the year 2000 referendums on open space protection passed, committing .5 billion in public funding.

By contrast, regulatory restrictions on growth remain controversial and contentious. Statewide initiatives in Arizona and Colorado, seeking to force all but the most rural places to enact and enforce urban growth boundaries, were decisively defeated.

Development interests lobbied and spent heavily to defeat the Arizona and Colorado measures. But sponsors clearly overplayed their hand: The Arizona proposal, for example, would have let any person sue public officials for violating the proposition’s terms.

And both measures had a fatal flaw, said Bruce Katz, director of Brookings’ urban-metropolitan center: They required growth limits set by localities rather than on a metropolitan-wide basis, as in Oregon and Washington.

One factor in Arizona and Colorado, suggested Katz: “exurban NIMBYism”–people in one suburb looking at the next subdivision and crying “Stop it!” Affordable housing wasn’t included; indeed, Habitat for Humanity opposed the Colorado initiative.

Another complication in Arizona and Colorado, plus in many California localities voting on local growth limits, were provisions to require local referendums on minutia of growth and development decisions.

“The feel-good period of smart growth is passing–now we’re hitting some very tough issues,” and they’ll take years of citizen and legislative action to resolve, Katz suggests.

Indeed, in Oregon, the country’s lead state in growth management since the 1970s, voters this November approved an initiative requiring full compensation to owners when state or local regulation reduces their property value. The cleverly worded measure, already under court challenge, imperils Oregon’s entire growth management structure.

Yet Oregonians rejected another initiative hostile to growth management. And next door, Washington voters overwhelmingly defeated an effort to choke off most funding for transit in favor of more highway building.

Public transportation votes got a mixed reception Election Day–approved in Silicon Valley, New Jersey and Florida, for example, but defeated in Austin and New York State.

What’s noteworthy is that most of today’s increasingly popular transit proposals wouldn’t have stood a chance a decade ago; now the question is often not whether they’ll pass, but how many elections it will take to get there.

The 2000 elections produced another phenomenon–voters trying to make sense of their regions by reaching across the fractured government lines that divide them. Voters in St. Louis, two adjacent Missouri counties and four in Illinois voted to fund a regional park district to set up interconnecting parks, trails and greenways.

Voters in three counties along the Wasatch Front in Utah endorsed a sales tax to expand their shared transit district. In Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley, including Snowmass and Aspen, five towns’ voters agreed to tax themselves for half-hour valley-wide transit service. In Charleston County, S.C., a .2 billion measure for transit, roads, parks and open space over 25 years, pushed by Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and local civic leaders, lost by a whisker and may be back on the ballot soon.

And as if all those cross-border initiatives weren’t enough, Louisville-Jefferson County, Ky., voted to merge governments, while voters in New Mexico’s Albuquerque-Bernalillo County, beset by fast Sunbelt growth pressures, approved a two-year process on the way to merging as a single urban county government.

Whether such initiatives come under the banner of “smart growth” or not, they reflect remarkable local ferment, a search for new ways to grow, preserve landscapes, provide traffic-relieving transit, and improve quality of life in American communities in the early 21st century.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail address is [email protected].

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