On Nov. 2, when Oregonians closed the book on the most forward-looking planning law in the nation, they did not just amend a statute - they changed the ethos of a state that had for 30 years celebrated open spaces, greenways and livable communities over hedonistic development.

And they likely started a copycat war throughout the West against zoning and planning.

The passage of Ballot Measure 37 introduces a novel concept: state and local governments should pay citizens to obey established land-use laws. If cash-strapped governments can't do so - and few can - those laws must be waived.

So if a person owns acreage outside the urban growth boundary of a town and wants to build a strip mall, nothing can stop him from making his contribution to malignant sprawl. Unless he can shake down the city treasury first.

Measure 37 creates a lesser-of-two-evils choice for local and state governments: either cannibalize services for kids, seniors and police or stand aside as unregulated development marches forward. The practical result will be a sprawl-induced increase in automobile mileage and emissions, decaying downtown businesses, disappearing open space and farmland - but the good times will roll for fast-buck artists who can invest in a second home somewhere far away where they don't have to look at the mess they created.

When Oregonians passed Measure 37 by a lopsided margin of 60-40, they signaled that they have become different people.

Thirty years ago, we Oregonians used law to promote things we enjoyed in common - open spaces, livable neighborhoods, economically viable downtowns and merchants. We said, "Our home will be different than other states. We will protect our farmland, our open spaces, our neighborhoods and our livability." That was in 1973. Our success was "The Oregon Story."

I was majority leader of the Oregon House at the time. On the morning of Jan. 8, a feeling of history in the making filled the House chamber as the legendary Tom McCall, perhaps the most popular governor in Oregon history, stepped to the microphone to address the opening session of the Legislature - and proposed the most sweeping change in land-use laws in the nation.

Tall, tanned and confident, McCall declared:

"Sagebrush subdivisions, coastal 'condomania,' and the ravenous rampage of suburbia in the Willamette Valley all threaten to mock Oregon's status as the environmental model for the nation.

"We are in dire need of a state land-use policy, new subdivision laws and new standards for planning and zoning by cities and counties. Oregon ... must be protected from grasping wastrels of the land. We must respect another truism: that unlimited and unregulated growth lead inexorably to a lowered quality of life."

It was a time when the environmental movement had emerged as a potent force, Richard Nixon had created the Environmental Protection Agency and the environment was Topic A in the media.

McCall was a lovable progressive Republican who had just inherited a new Democrat-controlled Legislature. The combination of an imaginative governor and a reform-minded Legislature created a rare alignment of the sun, stars and moon and the bill, introduced by a Republican state senator - an unassuming farmer named Hector McPherson - passed with relative ease.

For the next 31 years, the "grasping wastrels of the land" were largely held in check. But no longer - unless next year's Legislature somehow summons the will to change the law.

Some commentators have rightly pointed out that McCall's land-use planning law became more complex, inflexible and cumbersome as it was amended through the years. They are also correct that from time to time it seemed to be enforced with indifference to property owners.

I agree with them when they say that governors and legislators could have addressed the law's problems but failed to do so. Those officials share the blame for the loss of the law that, more than any other, made Oregon, Oregon.

But the real culprits are the economic interests who backed Measure 37, who stand to make out like bandits with unbridled development - the "grasping wastrels" who will leave us spiritually poorer as Oregonians. Have we really changed so much in 30 years that we cannot stop at least their worst excesses under Measure 37?

If the answer is "Yes, we really have changed," then the "Oregon Story" will be but a memory. And the open spaces of the West may never be the same.

Les AuCoin is an Ashland writer, professor and political commentator. He served for 18 years in the U.S. Congress and is a former majority leader of the Oregon House of Representatives. Email him at: lesaucoin@excite.com


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