Last week, the Oregon Senate passed Senate Bill 348—a vote notable for two reasons. First, it showed that Oregon's most influential environmental defender, 1000 Friends of Oregon, is petrified of a little old lady from the West Hills.
Second, it showed that politics make strange bedfellows. Card-carrying green state Sen. Charlie Ringo (D-Beaverton) wrote the bill with help from Dave Hunnicutt—the Freddy Krueger of the property-rights movement.
Is there a new political reality in Salem?
"Yes—and it's about damn time," says Hunnicutt, whose organization, Oregonians in Action, leads the property-rights charge.
Measure 37 triumphed at the polls last November by a vote of 61 to 39 percent. The message was simple: Government should compensate landowners for any reduction in property value caused by land-use regulations, or else waive those regulations. What's more, Measure 37 is retroactive—landowners can file claims against any regulation passed since they bought their property.
The measure's appeal was due in part to its chief petitioner, 92-year-old Dorothy English, who has waged a 14-year war against Multnomah County to subdivide her rural property, which is zoned as forestland. English became the measure's poster child, appearing in radio ads, newspaper articles and the Oregon Voters' Pamphlet.
The irony? English does not qualify to benefit from Measure 37, according to Multnomah County's Land Use Planning Division. Under the county's interpretation, subdividing land does not qualify as a "use."
So English took her fight to Salem with an unlikely ally—Sen. Charlie Ringo, a former director of the Sierra Club of Oregon, who introduced a bill specifically tailored to let her subdivide her land.
Last week, the Senate voted 19-6 in favor of Ringo's bill, over howls of protest from environmental groups.
"It's bad public policy for the Legislature to draft land-use bills for a single person," says Jessica Hamilton, a lobbyist for the Oregon League of Conservation Voters.
"It's a horrible precedent to have a singular exemption for an individual," says OSPIRG lobbyist Jeremy Wright. "Where does it stop?"
But 1000 Friends of Oregon, the state's leading champion of conservation on land-use questions, has maintained a deafening silence.
"They're not going near that," says one green insider.
Not only has 1000 Friends taken a neutral stance, it refuses even to comment on the bill. Executive director Bob Stacey says the group's energy is focused on finding a broader solution. "The fundamental message of Measure 37 was that [the voters] wanted more fairness in land-use development," he adds.
So 1000 Friends is spearheading a lawsuit to challenge Measure 37 and also backing a proposal by Sen. Kurt Schrader (D-Canby) to overhaul it—an idea that legislative observers say is going nowhere.
Sen. Ringo doesn't see SB 348 as an act of capitulation. He told WW the bill is a way to show that Measure 37 was so poorly written that it doesn't even benefit its chief petitioner—thus sparking a revamp of the law.
Whatever its larger role in the property-rights debate, the passage of SB 348 would spell victory for Dorothy English. But she's not celebrating yet. "I'll wait and see what happens," she says, "before I start patting anybody on the back."