Referendum update: State and local sprawl-related initiatives

Published January 1, 2001

The November 7 election offered many lessons. Of special interest to Environment & Climate News readers, those lessons included: Voters want to protect open space, and they will pay for transit if they think it will reduce congestion (which it won’t). But voters are wary of the so-called “smart growth” prescription of increasing population densities in the name of stopping sprawl.

Sprawl-related measures on the November 7 ballot fell into five categories:

  • growth management, also known as smart growth;
  • growth control, also known as slow growth or no growth;
  • transit;
  • highways; and
  • open space.

Despite early polls indicating they would pass, smart-growth measures were firmly rejected by Arizona and Colorado voters after opponents made it clear the measures would lead to litigation and increase population densities. Oregon’s 1973 growth management law withstood ballot challenges in the past, but this year’s voter approval of compensation to property owners when regulation reduces the value of their land could bring down the entire planning system. Urban voters are apparently fed up with the densities and congestion imposed on them by planners.

Several California cities and counties approved growth control measures. These will restrict development on vacant land and increase housing costs, but existing homeowners don’t mind: Their home values will be pushed up, and congestion will be minimized.

Transit measures produced mixed results. Voters in Kansas City, Missouri, and Austin, Texas rejected light-rail transit plans, but Bay Area voters approved expensive extensions of the BART system. Florida and Seattle voters supported, but did not fund, rail proposals. Salt Lake City voters approved higher sales taxes for transit.

Rhode Island passed a highway measure, but Washington rejected one. A highway/transit sales tax was also turned down by Charleston, South Carolina, voters.

Voters see open space protection as a way of reducing population densities. Such measures passed in Rhode Island and Ohio and narrowly failed in Missouri.

The election results suggest voters are motivated primarily by congestion and densities, not by personal freedom or property rights. Supporters of freedom and property rights must work hard to show people that such freedom is an important part of urban livability.


The Citizen’s Growth Management Initiative, Proposition 202, was rejected by Arizona voters by a two-to-one margin. It would have required cities and counties in the state to adopt growth management plans to limit urban sprawl. The plans would have to set urban growth boundaries, limit development and new city services outside the boundaries, and require developers to pay for roads and schools to serve new subdivisions. Plans could not be substantially changed without voter approval, and citizens could adopt plans and amendments by initiative.

Proposition 100, placed on the ballot by the Arizona Legislature, was also rejected by voters. Among other provisions, the proposition would have allowed up to 3 percent of state trust land to be permanently set aside rather than sold. Unlike Prop 202, Prop 100 was opposed by much of the Arizona environmental community, who contended the initiative would unfairly benefit ranchers and developers, and allow too much state land to be sold off for development. Proposition 100 had been struck down by the Arizona Superior Court in August, but the state’s appeal was upheld by the Arizona Supreme Court.


Alameda County voters approved a measure to extend the county’s transportation sales tax in order to provide a $186 million increase in funding for transportation alternatives. But they rejected the Save Agriculture and Open Space Lands Initiative, which would have established a county urban growth boundary to focus urban development in and near cities. The failed measure was supported by the Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter, Greenbelt Alliance, and Palomares Home Owners Association.

Santa Clara County approved, by a 70-30 vote, a ½ cent sales tax to extend Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) to San Jose. California tax measures must be approved by two-thirds of voters; this and the Alameda County measure reported above are the first transportation measures to reach it.

Voters in San Luis Obispo County rejected the Save our Open Space and Agricultural Resources (SOAR) initiative, which would have required voter approval of zoning changes for agricultural and rural lands in the county. A similar plan in Sonoma County, dubbed the Rural Heritage Initiative, also failed. In Santa Clara County, voters approved a proposal to extend the county’s transportation sales tax, which expires in 2006.


The Responsible Growth Initiative (Amendment 24) is being promoted by a coalition environmental, land use planning, and community groups as way to preserve open space in Colorado. The legislation would require the following:

  • Cities and counties must prepare maps of any outlying areas where future development is expected, outlining the location and general densities and uses of the land. The plans must be submitted to local voters for approval before construction is allowed in undeveloped areas.
  • Cities and counties would describe to voters the projected impacts of the new development, including its costs and effect on traffic, schools, open space, air quality and emergency services.
  • Development would only be allowed in areas where localities can afford the costs, including financing, to build roads and central water and sewer systems within a ten-year period. NO


Florida voters, statewide and in several counties, approved every open space or transportation-related measure put before them, including a statewide proposal to fund a “monorail” line connecting five of Florida’s largest cities. The measure would have directed the state to begin building the rail line by 2003 . . . without identifying how much it will cost or where the money would come from.


Statewide, voters defeated Proposition A, the Save Our Scenery 2000 initiative, by 44,000 votes, a 51 to 49 percent margin. While the issue won easily in the St. Louis area, it lost in most rural counties and in Kansas City. A citizen’s initiative, the measure would have stopped new billboard construction on interstate and primary highways. On-premise signs and official traveler information/tourist signs would not have been affected, and existing billboards would not have been required to be taken down.

In Kansas City, voters rejected a proposed ½-cent sales tax for 20 years to fund a $1. 2 billion light-rail plan.


Ohio voters approved State Issue #1, which will make available $400 million for brownfield redevelopment and open space and farmland preservation.


Oregon voters approved Measure 7, a takings initiative that will require state and local governments to compensate property owners if government regulations lessen the value of their property. The anti-growth environmentalist group 1000 Friends of Oregon had claimed the measure would cost the state billions of dollars.

Ironically, Measure 2, which merely required legislative review of state regulations, failed by almost the same margin. Both measures were initiated by Oregonians in Action, a property rights group. The legislative review measure had been on the ballot before, and Oregon voters resent having to vote on measures twice.

However, enough voters have been annoyed by zoning and other regulations that they supported the compensation measure even though planners and prominent elected officials argued that the measure would make it “impossible for us to maintain our urban growth boundary” and pressure the state to scrap land-use planning.

Rhode Island

Voters approved Question 1, which provides provide $34 million for open space purchases through public, private, and nonprofit agencies.

South Carolina

Charleston voters rejected a sales tax for transportation, 35 percent of which would be for transit, by 49-51.


Austin Metro Area voters very narrowly—50.4 to 49.6—rejected a transit initiative that would have directed existing transportation funds to a 22-mile $919 mile light rail line through the city.


Salt Lake-area voters passed an increase in sales taxes for mass transit. Though most of the money will go for rail transit, the measure was sold to voters as a transit measure and rail transit was played down because voters had previously rejected the same transit tax when it was explicitly aimed at rail transit.


Voters rejected I-745, which proposed to increase road spending and make roads “the transportation priority.” It would have required that 90 percent of transportation funds in the state be spent on road construction, improvement, and maintenance. King County approved by a 53-47 vote a sales tax increase that would restore $80 million in annual funding for buses. Despite scandals over rail transit, Seattle voters approved by a 58-42 vote a study for monorail expansion.

Randal O’Toole is Milton R. Merrill Visiting Professor of Political Science at Utah State University. He can be reached by email at [email protected]. Additional information on initiatives nationwide can be found on the Internet at the SprawlWatch Clearinghouse,