The fourth floor of the Lloyd Center Mall is an unlikely place to plot the future of Oregon—but it's here that the Yes on 49 campaign has set up shop. Close to the skylights, atop the mall, it is bright, utilitarian, and reminiscent of the refuge taken by the heroes in George Romero's cinematic nightmare Dawn of the Dead.
But apocalyptic thoughts don't seem inappropriate here; in a spare and roomy suite of offices, Liz Kaufman directs the statewide campaign for Measure 49 (M49)—a referendum appearing on the November ballot to rein in the excesses of Measure 37 (M37), the 2004 initiative that largely gutted Oregon's longstanding land-use laws. In her opinion, and that of many others, no other fight has had so much influence over what Oregon will eventually look like over the next generation. For many this vote stands between the preservation of our landscape and what the quality of life is now like in sprawling cities such as Houston, Phoenix, and Orlando.
In 2004, Measure 37, a citizens' initiative sponsored by an organization called Oregonians in Action, upended the state's growth and environmental regulations by requiring the government to pay landowners for any potential loss of property values caused by land-use laws. If governments refused to pay, they had to waive the environmental regulations—in effect, it made decades' worth of smart growth planning completely unenforceable.
The campaign hook of the M37 campaign was an elderly woman named Dorothy English, who wanted to build some houses on property outside of the urban growth boundary. It's arguably this small landowner that voters had in mind when they voted yes in 2004. To honor the "little guy vs. big government" sentiment, Measure 49 extends similar, but limited, opportunities to small landowners. Commercial and industrial development in protected areas is out of the question, but M49 allows rural landowners to build one to three houses, and four to 10 if they can prove that regulations actually devalued their property. This, supporters claim, is enough to save anyone from the poorhouse.
But was Measure 37 ever really about small landowners? The numbers tell a different story, one which bears no resemblance to that of poor Dorothy English.
There's a reason journalists and good government activists spend so much time poring over campaign donor lists—the motives of each side's backers can reveal what's really in store for the state. That's clearly on display with M49, and with M37 three years ago. The biggest M37 claimholder, with over 109,000 acres in contention, is Stimson Lumber, who donated the largest contribution yet ($200,000) last week to the Stop 49 campaign. Stimson, a major player in the Northwest timber industry for over a hundred years, was the preeminent sponsor of M37 three years ago.
It'll be difficult for the Yes on 49 campaign to track the movements of the measure's opponents. To conceal the sources and expenditures of the Stop 49 campaign, contributions have been swapped back and forth between Oregonians in Action and a shadow organization, the Oregon Family Farm Association PAC. Proponents of the measure believe big money is waiting for the last minute to swoop in. The Oregon Family Farm Association PAC, it seems, is less an organization than the handiwork of Republican State Senator Larry George. George's father also represented rural Yamhill County in the senate before him, and his mother has a Measure 37 claim of her own. She owns a 394-acre parcel she wishes to develop; as a Yamhill County commissioner, George's mother has jurisdiction over the claim (unless she recuses herself). Larry George is also the principal of George Advertising, the agency running the no campaign, which earned hundreds of thousands of dollars running the campaign for Measure 37.
A dozen other top contributors to No on 49 have a strong financial stake in the issue: Seneca Jones Timber, of Roseburg, has donated $100,000. (Also clocking in at $100,000 is a Klamath Falls low-wage temporary services company Hire Calling, which has previously supported anti-tax initiatives sponsored by Bill Sizemore. Hire Calling CEO Dick Wendt also heads up window-making company Jeld-Wen, and has a close relationship to Sizemore.) The Swanson Group, a timber company headquartered in Glendale, has given $163,500; Kalama, Washington's RSG Forest Products has ponied up $25,000; and J.R. Simplot, a large Idaho landowner, french fry magnate, and supporter of right-wing causes, donated $10,000.
It should come as no surprise that businesses that make their profits by chopping down forests would invest so much in killing M49. Timber companies get double the profit from the land they own under the current M37 rules—after logging restrictions disappear, they can clear cut forests, and then put up tract housing.
In Washington County, west of Beaverton, Stimson Lumber holds the largest M37 claim, for nearly 15,000 acres subdivided for residential development. The cumulative area slated for development under various Measure 37 claims would immediately double the suburban land area in Washington County—and the Stimson claim is the lion's share of that potential sprawl. Representatives from Stimson did not return calls for this article.
WATER AND WINE
Yes on 49's top financial contributor is Eric Lemelson, the owner of Lemelson Winery in Carlton. Lemelson, who has a history of environmental activism dating back 20 years and was also a major donor to the No on 37 campaign, says, "I moved here when I was 19, from New Jersey. I know what happens in a place that doesn't have planning. Cities like Phoenix and Houston are what you get when you apply [No on 49's] libertarian principles to zoning." He claims that the proponents of 37 knew the government would not compensate small landowners for their losses, and that it was "a way of eliminating regulations."
Aside from the scenic and environmental spoilage that would come with an unprecedented and sudden explosion of rural development in the state, Lemelson predicts a tangle of water rights conflicts: Oregon law allows rural homes to draw 15,000 gallons of water from wells daily without a permit. Multiply that by the thousands of country homes Stimson Lumber plans for Washington County, and you end up with the kind of impasse that happens every time an area becomes urban overnight.
Every rural property owner benefits from tax breaks as part of the laws passed in the '70s to protect forest and farm land. On his 200 acres of land in Glendale, Lemelson says he pays just $800 a year in property taxes. This, he says, is growth management's insurance that even the lowest-income farm and rural landowners don't go broke keeping their land undeveloped. There's no doubt the rural qualities of the Carlton area are good for wine tourism. But what Lemelson's own profit margin demands, it seems, is very much in line with what most Oregonians likely wish for the rural parts of the state: minimal roads and traffic; clean water; clean air; and places someone would actually like to go, or live in.
Not far behind Lemelson's total contributions stands 49's second-biggest donor, at $650,000 (at press time): the state chapter of national nonprofit the Nature Conservancy. Every farm bureau in the Willamette Valley, however, according to Lemelson, has endorsed M49.
PORTLAND OR MIAMI?
If unchanged by Measure 49, the law passed under Measure 37 would eliminate the urban growth boundary Portland is so famous for. For Multnomah County Commissioner Jeff Cogen, who has spoken on behalf of Yes on 49 at numerous forums, his support for the measure is personal.
"I grew up in Miami," he says, "which had about the same population Portland does now. This was in the early '70s. We used to pick strawberries in the Kendall-Homestead neighborhood, which was then undeveloped and pastoral, and about the same distance from Miami as Hillsboro is from Portland. Now, it's all developed, and part of the massive sprawl that ís Miami."
Cogen believes that the choices Miami made to accommodate its population growth to over six million were ruinous. "The place that existed when I was a kid isn't there anymore." The 120 miles from the Florida Keys to West Palm Beach, he tells me, are "nonstop sprawl, Wal-Marts, subdivisions." He doesn't doubt the same kind of ugliness is in store for Oregon should M49 fail.
"We have to love what we have here," he adds. "If we take it for granted, we'll wind up losing it."
Cogen believes this November election is the most important he has seen in his 15 years here. "This is core to who we are and how we'll live together. Are property rights extremists going to define us so we can't think of neighbors or community? It's about who we are. I think Measure 49 is as big as [these things] can get."
Liz Kaufman says M49's opponents are counting on young people not voting in the November 6 election—those who perhaps appreciate Oregon's undeveloped areas the most.
M49 has to win this year, Kaufman says, "because the development 37 allowed is already happening. If we don't stop it now, by next year it will be too late."