Stateline Story

November Measures Reinforced States Roles as Sprawlbusters: Study

  • February 26, 2001
  • By John Nagy
Reports of the death of state-level efforts to combat sprawl are greatly exaggerated, according to a new analysis of last November's growth-related ballot initiatives released today.

Despite the defeat of marquee measures that would have aggressively curbed new development in growth-obsessed Arizona and Colorado, voters elsewhere showed that states "still hold the key...to the choices that localities have" when working out solutions to the complex problems of suburban growth, said Phyllis Myers, the principal author of the report.

Residents of 38 states faced initiatives on new funding or authorization for a wide array of growth projects. They included questions on open space purchases, new highways, mass transit and other commuter alternatives, school construction, economic development, growth boundaries and the rewiring of jurisdictional arrangements.

Myers and researchers from the centrist, Washington, DC-based Brookings Institution counted a total of 553 growth-related measures on ballots around the country. They found an aggregate 72 percent approval rate, but noted that "yes" votes did not always indicate support for the "smart growth" approach that tends to favor compact development, mass transit and a walkable mixture of commercial and residential areas.The report also found that:

  • Nearly half of the growth measures - 257, or 44.7 percent - dealt with land conservation, a 15.1 percent jump in this category from 1998. A greater proportion of these open space measures were locally affiliated in 2000, but voters nationwide still approved 201 of them for a 78.2 percent acceptance rate, "a significant increase" for this type of measure.
  • More than one in four measures dealt with transportation, school construction or some other infrastructure issue, while growth controls (16.3 percent), economic development (8.5 percent) and tinkering with state and local policy parameters (4.3 percent) accounted for the remainder.
  • Transportation measures that focused on either highways or highway alternatives fared well, passing 72 percent and 85 percent, respectively. But measures that combined the two struggled with a 57 percent passage rate, "possibly because separate constituencies are just beginning to forge alliances and craft cooperative strategies," the authors wrote.
  • Citizen-generated initiatives overwhelmingly pursued regulatory matters such as zoning and urban growth boundaries. Overall, growth control initiatives and referenda enjoyed a relatively modest 54 percent acceptance rate.
  • Legislatures scattered their referenda across the full spectrum of policy approaches and issues, with the highest percentage going again toward open space and parks measures.

    A breakdown of ballot questions by state shows that residents in California, Ohio, Colorado, Illinois and New Jersey faced the largest number of growth decisions, accounting for more than half of the overall total. Oregon, Rhode Island, North Carolina, Maryland and Texas rounded out the top ten.Myers, an independent consultant who specializes in land use policy and state government, partnered with the Brookings Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy on a similar study of "livability" initiatives after the November 1998 elections. That study found a high rate of passage on a more limited range of "growth-related" measures, primarily on funding for land conservation programs.

    "Although some people have looked to defeat of the Arizona and Colorado measures" as evidence that smart growth is losing its strength, "the survey reinforces the idea that these ideas are on the forefront of what Americans are thinking about," Myers said.

    In Myers' view, the appearance of the heavily regulatory mechanisms for growth control on the ballot in two western states that are booming but traditionally conservative and sensitive to property rights was more remarkable than the fact that the initially popular measures fell flat on their respective faces.

    The report also acknowledges the passage of Oregon's Measure 7, which requires compensation for landowners who can demonstrate the loss of property values due to the state's progressive growth control laws. An Oregon judge recently struck down the new takings law but the measure's backers are appealing the ruling.

    Taken together, the results from Arizona, Colorado and Oregon were viewed by skeptics of the anti-sprawl movement as a severe blow to what had appeared to be a groundswell of calls for action to better manage urban and suburban expansion.

    Smart growth advocates have meanwhile cheered "two very important [statewide] wins" with successful land use bond measures in Ohio and Rhode Island.

    But the report suggests that the main lessons from 2000 are that local priorities and capabilities are very diverse and that the solutions that win approval often reflect an awareness of the state's role as a gatekeeper of resources and policy restrictions.

    "These ballot measures reflect citizens' and governments' willingness to experiment with strategies and policies that will shape growth in their states, counties and localities," the report concluded.