Oregon Gets Taken: Property-Rights Radicals versus Our Most Livable State. (Gazette)

Article excerpt

FRANK HARDIN MAY FINALLY get his chance to dig up the 18 million tons of gravel beneath his land in the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains. For nearly a decade, Oregon's Jackson County has denied him mining permits in order to keep scores of double-length mining trucks from rumbling through the tiny town of Jacksonville each day. The first town in the United States to be designated a national historic landmark, Jacksonville has more than 80 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. When Oregon voters in 2000 passed Measure 7, the most radical "takings" initiative in the United States, Hardin filed a $50 million claim against the city and county for reducing the value of his property.

Standing at the mouth of the old Opp Mine, site of southern Oregon's richest gold strike, Hardin complains, "We've been making property payments for 12 years on this for $2,000 a month and haven't gotten a dime in return yet." The truck driver and his mother-in-law bought the abandoned site in late 1989 to open a gravel mine. "We'd still prefer to operate the property as what we intended for when we bought it, but if we can't do that, then we would hope that Measure 7 would force the county to purchase the property for fair market value and we could go do something else," Hardin says.

The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution declares that private property shall not "be taken for public use, without just compensation." Under Measure 7, most government actions in Oregon that reduce property values would be declared takings of private property. As a result, the state government and local ones across Oregon would face a stark choice: Pay property owners for the alleged harm caused by regulations or stop having a say in how Oregonians use the land.

Measure 7 has been tied up in lawsuits, and it is now before the Oregon Supreme Court. But if the measure survives, the most likely result would be a wholesale rollback of land-use regulations. Hardin's mine would send loaded gravel trucks down Jacksonville's historic main street, reducing the gold rush-era town's quality of life and its ability to draw visitors. Ironically, this outcome would likely reduce private-property values in a town dependent on tourism.

Jacksonville Mayor Jim Lewis, one of the co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging Measure 7, says the town coffers couldn't possibly pay Hardin's $50 million claim. "We have no money for it," he explains. "Measure 7 would impose such high economic risk on a city or county or any other jurisdiction involved in land-use decisions that it would basically put them out of business in that field, and that's not what we need or want in Oregon."

The state government estimates that claims under Measure 7 could cost it $5 billion a year. Its supporters say these are just scare tactics. But the takings initiative could cripple Oregon's land-use protections. Before Measure 7 was tied up in a lawsuit, more than 60 local governments in Oregon adopted ordinances allowing them to waive any regulation for which they would rather not compensate property owners.

EVER SINCE IT PASSED THE NATION'S first statewide land-use planning law in 1973, Oregon has been recognized as a leader in fighting sprawl and building livable communities. Among the many results of the state's comprehensive land-use law, every city in Oregon has an urban-growth boundary aimed at protecting farms, forests and coastlines from becoming tomorrow's subdivisions. Zoning that excludes affordable housing is illegal throughout the state. By integrating transportation and land-use planning, the Oregon law has also reduced the state's automobile dependence and has fostered a strong tradition of citizen involvement in land-use planning: 90 percent of people in Portland can tell you that "UGB" stands for urban-growth boundary.

Portland has become a mecca for urban planners. …