Voters in 23 states considered ballot measures dealing with growth management and the environment on Nov. 7. Some of the most highly publicized proposals were rejected, but experts dismiss suggestions that the defeat of prominent "smart growth" measures in Arizona and Colorado means that interest in curbing sprawl has cooled.
"The voters were sending messages about the complexity and breadth of issues that are involved in arriving at better strategies for managing growth," said Phyllis Myers, a land use consultant and leading scholar of growth trends at the ballot box.
Voters in the states that offered one or more growth-related ballot measures returned a mixed collective response to what had appeared to be a groundswell of public interest in conservation issues. They derailed the proposals of "smart growth" advocates in some states while approving a handful of more conservative land measures and economic development proposals in others.
Myers, the president of State Resource Strategies, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm specializing in the preservation of cultural and natural resources, is analyzing the national spectrum of state and local ballot measures for the Brookings Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank.
"The public wants to move beyond talk about sprawl to test different strategies and approaches. We're seeing a lot of experimentation going on. This is not going to be solved overnight," she said.
Conservationists could claim victory, in some cases quite reluctantly, in Ohio and Rhode Island, where voters opened their wallets to fund land safeguards and clean-up progams. Some Ohio green groups had campaigned against the Buckeye State's Issue 1, a $400 million bond referendum that will fund brownfields reclamation , farmland preservation and development of the state's parks among other projects, saying it would unfairly subsidize corporate polluters and unjustly green up their images.
Residents of Washington state turned their backs on a plan to guarantee 90 cents of every state transportation dollar toward highway construction and repair. Evergreen State environmentalists resolutely opposed the idea, noting that it would pinch funding for transportation alternatives.
On a day in which their state's top elected official had more momentous things to worry about, Florida voters delivered Jeb Bush at least one political defeat by approving a constitutional amendment that authorizes the development of a high-speed rail link connecting the state's five largest cities.
Myers said the results from Washington and Florida, along with the approval of transportation bonds in New Jersey and Rhode Island, reflects mounting interest in transportation choice as one piece of the sprawl solution.
Elsewhere, however, the news for growth-control advocates was glum.
Headliner measures like a pair of proposals to implement tighter urban growth regulations in Arizona and Colorado failed. Arizona's Citizens Growth Management Initiative, backed by a coalition of environmental groups that included the state chapter of the Sierra Club, drew a mere 30 percent of the vote after mid-summer polls suggested it could pass by a margin of two to one.
Arizonans also narrowly rejected a legislative referendum, touted by Gov. Jane Dee Hull (R) as the potential guardian of the state's "crown jewels," that would have authorized the permanent preservation of up to three percent of the state's trust lands.
But Colorado voters seemed more comfortable with the indirect path toward saving green space. They authorized the Centennial State's participation in multi-state lotteries like the lucrative Power Ball game, a move that could boost revenues available for state and local parks and land preservation programs within a pre-determined cap.
In Oregon, property rights advocates landed a direct blow at the state's reputedly progressive land regulations by persuading voters to pass Measure 7, which will require state and local government to compensate property owners when environmental, growth or historic designation regulations diminish the value or utility of their land.
Mainers squarely rejected every measure on their ballot, including a pair of growth-related questions. One was a proposal that would have required loggers to obtain clear-cutting permits from the state Forest Service. The other was a land use assessment tax benefit that supporters said would have enabled commercial fishermen to more easily retain their traditional positions on the state's prime waterfronts.