I-933 seeks fairness, but could create chaos

Initiative 933 purports to be simply about fairness. If only it were that simple.

I-933 is anything but simple. In its stated effort to protect private property rights, it would put taxpayers and property owners alike in a complicated legal tangle, with land-use lawyers the only sure winners and taxpayers the only sure losers.

The initiative is patterned after others on the ballot in Western states this year, and is similar to – but more drastic than – Oregon’s Measure 37. Sponsored here by the Washington Farm Bureau, it would require government to fully compensate property owners when any regulation adopted since 1996 damages the use or value of their property. Basically, it’s how some farm bureau members have chosen to fight back against what they consider overbearing land-use rules.

Their frustration is understandable. The Growth Management Act and other land-use planning rules have real shortcomings that need to be addressed. Their one-size-fits-all approach sometimes precludes common-sense solutions. But I-933 is a gross overreaction that would undercut land-use planning, threaten to undermine the character of existing neighborhoods and undo lots of smart planning that most citizens believe in.

If it becomes law, government (taxpayers) will have three choices if a property owner files a claim under I-933: waive the regulation that has limited the property’s use, pay the claim, or pay to fight it. If the courts rule that local governments can’t waive some regulations because they’re required by federal or state law – some prominent attorneys believe that will happen – they’ll have to pay. That could cost a small city millions, bringing it to the brink of insolvency. At a minimum, it would divert money away from critical public needs.

What if the courts do allow rules to be waived? You’ll likely see irresponsible development, sprawl that isn’t supported by proper infrastructure, and environmental damage. Trouble is, no one is sure which regulations could or couldn’t be waived because the initiative doesn’t spell it out clearly.

Lawmakers should take I-933 as a cue to change key land-use laws to make them more balanced, reasonable and flexible. Different parcels have different characteristics, and that should be taken into account when deciding how to protect critical habitat. Setbacks that are necessary on one parcel, for example, shouldn’t automatically be applied to others where they’re less necessary.

But such fixes can be made without throwing out smart planning or cleaning out city treasuries. Voters should reject I-933 as an exercise in overkill.

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