From the Front Lines of Property Rights Battles

Posted on: October 5th, 2007 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

Today in sunny Saint Paul, the National Trust Board of Advisors and a large group of fellow preservationists gathered to talk about "Property Rights Battles: Views from the Front Lines."

For those not familiar with the structure of the National Trust, the Board of Advisors is not the National Trust for Historic Preservation's governing board—that's the Board of Trustees. Instead, the Board of Advisors is a group of more than 100 volunteers who act as eyes and ears in places where the National Trust has no permanent staff presence and who complement and augment the knowledge, skills, and contacts of staff, offering always needed and frequently heeded counsel on emerging issues and trends.

Given their record of dynamism, it might seem odd that the advisors chose the theme of property rights for their sponsored session for the third year running. What's up with that? Hasn't this drum been beaten long enough? Judging from the sellout crowd, the answer is a resounding "no."

Of course, if, like me, you hail from the West, these battles are hard to ignore. A bit of background: In 2004, Oregon voters approved Measure 37, which essentially gutted Oregon's groundbreaking land-use protections that have been in place since 1973. Close on the heels of the Oregon fiasco, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Kelo v. New London in 2005.

At today's session, Dwight Merriam of Connecticut was able to add some local color to the Kelo story, including the stranger-than-fiction Christmas card that Mrs. Kelo sent out (cue scary movie music). As Mr. Merriam outlined, this case quickly became a cause celebre among private property rights advocates, who saw in Kelo the long arm of the law stretching way too close for comfort. They also saw an opportunity to push a much broader property-rights agenda.

With the precedence of Measure 37 in Oregon, and blood in the water courtesy of the Kelo decision, there was not a whole lot of reason to be optimistic about the outcome of these referenda. Still, preservationists knew what was at stake, and together we helped waged valiant "no" campaigns in all four states.

The results were probably better than almost anyone expected. As we learned in the session, Prop 90 in California, I-933 in Washington, and Prop 2 in Idaho all went down to defeat. Jennifer Meisner, executive director of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, laid out a convincing—and successful—strategy for victory: build a strong and effective coalition, secure your base of support, frame the issue in your terms, and keep the message clear. Oh, and raise a boatload of money: $3.7 million, to be precise. (Thanks, Jennifer, for the shout out to the National Trust for our support!)

Of course, Washingtonians, Idahoans, and Californians could look across the border and see the buyer's remorse in Oregon in the wake of Measure 37. No such lessons for Arizonans. Jim McPherson, one of our advisors from Arizona, had to tell the tale of Arizona's Prop 207 woes, which effectively fizzle any ebullience about our three successes.

Mary Oberst, National Trust Advisor and First Lady of Oregon, was able to offer to hope. After illustrating the effects of Measure 37 with a map of existing property claims in Clackamas County that looked like it had been riddled with machine-gun fire, Mary outlined Measure 49, which will go to voters this November. Measure 49 is modest in its goals: it would allow property owners to build a few homes on their land, but would limit large subdivisions, commercial, and industrial projects on lands currently reserved for farm, residential, and forest uses. It's a step in the right direction, and the National Trust has is supporting the campaign with our endorsement and our dollars.

- Anthony Veerkamp

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National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.