Fields of Dreams or People Politics

by Carolyn Chase


've got an initiative, you've got an initiative, let's all govern by initiative. Just about every initiative seeks to achieve some goals where elected officials would really rather not address the public good. The preferred alternative is to keep such issues off the ballot, off the agenda and out of the media. So, more and more initiatives are brought forward in attempts to accomplish breakthroughs against the status quo logjam of power politics. This dynamic sets the stage for populist posturing before a ponderous public.

The saber-rattling and fear-mongering has already begun by property rights zealots claiming that the proposed "Rural Heritage and Watershed Initiative" (RHWI) will reduce property values by "95 percent of the value of your land." Backers of Citizens for Private Property Rights go on to ask, "What's it worth to you to try and prevent this from happening?"

But what's it worth to the rest of us to prevent unbridled development? Where is the public good here? The public good generally appears to be some lofty virtue or total abstraction - unless it touches your property and conflicts with your personal dreams. At the point that the government seeks to restrict you from doing something, it seems very personal. When it's your land, it hard to accept that anything anyone else wants to restrict is any of their business, regardless of their credentials and the evolving public good.

It was personal when my parents' dream lot was cut-off, condemned and purchased as part of a major highway expansion. We were bought out with no chance and no choice. The dreams for that property went the way of progress for the greater good. We learned to get over it and move on. But what used to be the order of the day - in the name of the public good - is now fought by some as "takings," even though few of today's land-use restrictions actually do take the land the way my family had it taken.

Most environmental restrictions seek to determine the biological or watershed value of the land, to site development accordingly, and/or require mitigation for damage to the environment. Local habitat plans seeks to determine which lands should rightfully never be developed. But these plans and procedures are battled and subverted throughout our tortuous political process. Few are based on good planning or stewardship.

The right of the people to defend the public good and to enforce land stewardship in the face of the pressures of growth are at the heart of RWHI.
RHWI seeks to restrict urban development on designated rural and agricultural lands. It does so by establishing a "Rural Resource Overlay," protecting lands from urban sprawl and thereby conserving the county's overall environmental and economic health. Quoting from the text of the initiative: "This overlay applies to lands with particular agricultural, wilderness, watershed, or scenic value . . . The purpose of the overlay is to protect those resource values by maintaining parcels of a sufficient size to ensure sustainable agriculture and effective conservation of the County's natural resources."

Why this approach? How should the fate of the county's remaining "back country" lands be decided? Why should it be decided at the ballot box?

In today's political climate the public good of environmental protection is considered just another competing special interest. More projects are permitted than are ever stopped. More is lost than is ever saved. The short-term pressures and payoffs from permitting projects are too much for officials to resist.

The dangers of continued uncontrolled growth are also outlined in the initiative: "The current patterns of piecemeal planning in the County's back country poses an immediate and long-term threat to the County's future. Sprawling urban development, with its associated increased in traffic congestion, air pollution, and other impacts will lead to the following serious consequences: impairment of water resources; division of or damage to scenic wilderness lands, including lands with important habitat value; undercutting the viability of agriculture; unnecessary and costly extension of public services and facilities to remote areas; conflicts between urban land uses and rural land uses such as ranching. Existing General Plan policies allowing for parcels as small as two acres in sensitive back country areas are inadequate to protect against the harmful effects of urban sprawl."

While fears of "takings" make headlines, the factual content of the initiative is less controversial once you get past the obtuse language of zones, development areas and overlays.

RHWI has explicit language preventing takings. Amendments to the Rural Resource overlay may be made "after a public hearing, where denial of an amendment would constitute an unconstitutional taking or deprivation of a vested right."

This seems to be little reassurance to those who have set their sights on the speculative notion that someday subdivisions would come their way, no matter what. Project proponents believe that if you can conceive it and finance it, you ought to be able to build it regardless of any constraints, including the environment, the public good or any plans. I'm sorry, but there are some lands that should not be paved over, some farms that should stay farms.

How will it be decided? RHWI backers are organizing to collect 100,000 signatures by the end of April in order to qualfy RHWI for the November ballot. Opponents may do some collecting of their own. It looks like we're in for a much-needed wave of grass roots democracy.