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Saturday, February 24, 2007

Si Newhouse's wrong-minded surge

The Oregonian & Measure 37: They just don't get it.

SALEM - Oregonians are so upset about state land-use regulation that they've been flooding the Capitol this month to deliver the kind of angry, pleading and tearful speeches you'd expect on abortion and same-sex marriage.

Their message to legislators is clear, as reinforced by last year's passage of Measure 39's limits on eminent domain takings: Touch Measure 37 and risk political suicide. Most folks simply want to use their land responsibly and as they see fit, as long as they don't infringe on the rights of others, as promised by passage of the 2004 citizen initiative.

But fewer than 1000 sore-loser NIMBYs are still demanding the heavy-handed government regulation of residential property development that has hamstrung Oregon for 36 years, until 61% of voters approved of property rights restoration in 2004.

Opponents of Measure 37, fed by the reclusive out-of-state billionaire Si Newhouse and his monopoly statewide daily newspaper, The Oregonian, want us to think that Oregon's voter-approved property rights law is in play. After all, they have prosecuted a thundering political campaign against property rights in Oregon for many years.

The Oregonian goaded the Legislature into taking testimony concerning Measure 37 that has stretched on so long that lawmakers are now completely exhausted. Some legislators say it's time to consider tabling the entire discussion, instead of dealing with Gov. Tim Nesbitt's "dead cat bounce" proposal to suspend most Measure 37 activity while the Legislature negotiates a compromise.

All the blather about a rewrite ignores the obvious problem for incumbent lawmakers. Mess with property rights and the voters will take it out on you at the next election. The governor's spokeswoman, Anna Richter Taylor, acknowledges "the momentum now is to put on the brakes before voters get even more furious than they already are. The Governor had said that acting quickly was important, but he knew even then that was oxymoronic and not to be taken seriously."

Members of the notorious Land Use Un-Fairness Committee now say voters would view altering Measure 37 as a serious legislative failure.

"I used to believe people didn't care about their property rights," says Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose. "But the Birkenstock collectivists have been trumped exponentially by the crowds of ordinary property owners who have come to testify for Measure 37."

Oregonians favoring restoration of their property rights arrived at multiple legislative meetings - Thursday night was the latest - in denim and suits, from remote farming towns and urban offices, for reasons professional and personal. Once lawmakers capped the sign-up sheet, only people with golden tickets like those issued to successful "American Idol" contestants could watch in person. Security guards sent everybody else to overflow rooms with live TV feeds.

You could divine audience members' opinions by the stickers they wore: "Hands Off 37" or a slash through "505" - the number of the governor's misguided bill to allow only single-home developments through June. During speakers' two minutes at the microphone, laughter and applause were common as it became clear that lawmakers were being urged to "head south" on Senate Bill 505.

Florence Gestrin, who pleaded with the committee to make Measure 37 work faster rather than slower, said she didn't like being described as self-centered. Her mom, Opal Burkhard, won approval to split 116 acres in Columbia County into lots as small as four acres. The family views Measure 37 as a last resort, Gestrin says, after trying unsuccessfully to build a few homes or sell land to a timber company.

Gathering money and paperwork to pursue a modest development is difficult, Gestrin says. She told the crowd her mother, who has poor vision and gets around by wheelchair, has less than $300 in savings. "I'm not selfish," she said. "If I were selfish, I wouldn't be trying to take care of my mother."

Legislators say they loved hearing from so many passionate Oregonians, and that testimony raised issues that go beyond this session. How does the new Democratic leadership satisfy Si Newhouse and The Oregonian without touching what has become the "third rail" of Oregon politics - land use rights?

The Democrats who control the Legislature might be able to pass a proposal of their own without Republican support, but an increasing number of legislators are realizing that Measure 37 is, itself, a bipartisan solution.

"At the end of this thing, you're going to have to have Democrats standing next to Republicans saying, 'There is nothing we can do, nothing that we should do,' " says Rep. Bill Garrard, R-Klamath Falls, a Committee vice-chairman.

The Democratic chairmen, Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, and Rep. Greg Macpherson, D-Lake Oswego, now say there are no actual serious ideas on the table. They're assessing whether just holding the hearings will satisfy Measure 37's dogged opponents. "The longer it takes," Prozanski says, "the more imperative it is to accept the reality that we won't do anything about Measure 37." Sen. Kurt Schrader, D-Canby, said "I guarantee you a huge majority of Oregonians will be disappointed in anything we do to change Measure 37. I've been around long enough to be able to tell which way the wind is blowing."

The Oregonian, Feb. 23, By LAURA OPPENHEIMER

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