A democracy of water

Farmers and big-city progressives made a grand coalition. Now that civility is coming undone.

World Reports

Six weeks after I finished walking and kayaking Portland’s 260-mile Urban Growth Boundary (UGB), a statewide vote apparently repealed the whole thing.

Farmers and big-city progressives
made a grand coalition. Now that
civility is coming undone.

It had taken me a leisurely two years. But by the second-to-last day, when I followed the UGB down the Columbia River along Portland’s northern edge, polls and airwaves were full of omens. It was scary and sad. Oregon’s progressive land-use system had produced a famously thriving and livable city, to which I had moved from Los Angeles. Planning, compactness, transit, a surprising artistic and literary life: all the urban and urbane values seem to have been nurtured here. The UGB has fostered rural economies too. The Willamette Valley’s multimillion-dollar wine industry would never have happened without Oregon’s system of containing cities and leaving the space between cities for agriculture or wildness (not sprawling suburbs). Farmers and big-city progressives had made a grand coalition to get it started, back in the early 1970s. Now that civility, that democratic art of recognizing mutuality across differences, was coming undone.

There’s a democracy of water which is hard to overlook when you’re eye-level with it. The 40 miles of Clackamas, Willamette, Sandy, and Columbia I kayaked— all that flowing together, each drop of it, might have started as raindrops hitting the summit of Mt. Hood or as runoff from someone’s backyard. And these waters will flow right through us, too, entering and leaving effortlessly. Such intimate and extravagant coursings, from mountain slope to mouth to membrane – then out again to oceans and clouds and mountains – make a mockery of our definitions of “inside” and “outside.” We invest so much of ourselves in hard-shelled definitions of “me” – “my” skin, “my” house, “my” family, “my” rights – as if their boundaries were not comically porous.

Takings advantage
Measure 37 overturned 31 years of progressive community planning. The language of its ballot title was deceptively appealing: “Governments must pay owners, or forego enforcement, when certain land-use restrictions reduce property value.” The statute provides that anyone who owned land when a restriction was imposed on it may appeal and be paid for any loss of value (even speculative value), or be exempted from the restriction. A neighbor who bought later will not have the same right. The probability is that no local or regional government will have the money to pay such claims, and thus will have to waive the regulations in question. The result will be uncontrolled development.

Measure 37 is, to date, the greatest success of the so-called “takings” movement, which has been brewing in the West since libertarian guru Richard Epstein’s 1985 book of the same name. But Measure 37 is merely the second coming of the similar Measure 7, which passed in 2000 but was struck down by the Oregon Supreme Court. In the Voters Pamphlet for that measure, the Libertarian Party in Oregon voiced this dangerously simple view: “Your property belongs to you… When government officials enact regulations that strip a property of its value, [they] trample the rights of innocent people.” Emotionally, the metaphor tells all: the citizen denuded shamefully and trampled by jackbooted tyranny.

The argument ignores what legal scholars call “reciprocity of advantage”: the surround of social order and mutuality – schools, police, marketplace, etc. – that is a huge portion of any property’s “value,” a value thus created by those many other people who have no deed to the land, but whose interests are nevertheless deeply implicated in it. Ignoring this wider truth, Measure 37 enacts a libertarian fantasy that an owner possesses a near-absolute property right, as if each piece of land were located on a one-person planet.

Measure 37 embodies that privatizing, community-destroying trend that has been impoverishing our lives together for some decades now, lowering taxes on corporations (60 percent of which pay no tax at all) and the wealthy, raising payroll taxes on the working, and shifting Federal expenses onto states, which must then cut services. A few individuals profit. The rest pay mightily.

Until November 2004, Oregon stood against this destructive tide of narrow individualism. Oregonians turned back direct attempts to repeal Oregon’s land use laws; opinion polls find what is usually called “strong bipartisan support.” But Measure 37 passed by 60 percent statewide.

Why? One reason is that the half-truth of Measure 37’s “fairness” language packaged this bill in a way that seemingly no electorate could pass up. Success was guaranteed when the state Attorney General’s office approved language that failed to mention the other half of the truth – that while some lucky owners would profit, their neighbors and communities as a whole would suffer.

waterfall, www.photos.com

Almost daily now, post-election news stories recount consequences of which voters were probably unaware. Pear orchards in Hood River are being prepared for subdivision. House-building in Wallowa Lake will encroach on Chief Joseph’s gravesite and ring the beautiful lake with development. Communities around the state are waking up, complaining, organizing, but it may be too late. Private-property “individualism” like this really means “let someone else pay the price.”

In the democracy of water, high and low shift places continually, until the careful hierarchies of high and low, elevated and ignoble, are topsy-turvied out of existence. I think of Jackson Bottom Wetlands, snug in its meander of the Tualatin River on the southwest edge of the UGB, where contaminated water enters from the sewage plant at the top, and clean lakes and rivers appear at the bottom. There’s a “bottom” at both ends of the cycle, but the lowest is best here. The last shall be first. I saw geese taking off from the Wetlands lake, mixing mud and sky indiscriminately.

In my study is a map I obtained from Metro, a topographic reconstruction of the disappeared streams of our city. We have forgotten most of their names. In some sense, though, they are still running, in culverts or curbside along streets and into storm drains. Water will seek, and will not stop because its bed is paved.

The name of the Map of Disappeared Streams seems the saddest in any language, a palimpsest of loss and waste. We each know loss and waste so many ways it ought to surprise us we have any grief to spare – yet we do. Because surely the bedrock of our common life as humans and as living beings is the certainty of suffering. That is what we share, deeper than differences or creeds. The Lord maketh the rain to fall on the righteous and on the unrighteous. No one escapes. As I was writing up my long walk, an awful earth-shrugged wave in Southeast Asia killed hundreds of thousands of our fellow humans.

Suffering, compassion, the common good: These are not questions which individualists ponder. They cannot.

But that’s a big thought, big as a river or a city. So I take my vision at a humbler level. Stenciled next to those subversively reappearing streams, on curbs and storm-drains around town, are little blue-and-white salmon outlines, each a reminder that this water, here, is headed for our river, there. This lowly measure is my model. Direct and effective, it stimulates people daily to imagine real (though unseen) connectedness. Our job as environmentalists is always this – to remind folks of the connections: They’re real, we say… but you need to open your mind to see them. Even disappearing streams are still here, blessing or killing salmon with your garden runoff. The air, the water, the health effects from faraway polluters. See the connections! And in the politics of democracy, the politics of our disappearing UGB, this must also be our method, and our message. We are connected, and pretending otherwise – following those pied pipers of individualism and libertarianism and privatization – will be ruinous.

Portland author David Oates is the author of Paradise Wild, Reimagining American Nature (Oregon State University Press, February 2003). See more of his writing at davidoates.info

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