Government rules or actions alone can’t keep a fast-growing city from going down the tubes – only a strong common vision and clear path that everyone buys into can pull off that very tough balancing act, an expert in the field of “community stewardship” told a Bend audience Friday.
“Change is inevitable. We can either be victims of rapid change, or we can shape it and be better off,” said Luther Propst, executive director of the Sonoran Institute (http://www.sonoran.org), a Tucson, Ariz.-based nonprofit group that works with communities to conserve and restore important natural landscapes.
Propst’s 11-year-old organization has worked in areas across the West to promote community-based strategies that both preserve the integrity of protected lands, while meeting the economic aspirations of adjoining landowners and communities. And yet, he prefaced his remarks by saying that the Bend forum, sponsored by the Oregon Environmental Council (http://www.orcouncil.org), was his first talk in Oregon, a state he knows relatively little about.
That Propst hasn’t been invited to Oregon to speak previously could be seen as a salute to the state’s much-touted land-use planning laws. (Coincidentally, the Environmental Council’s concluding event in its 2000-01 Forum for Business and the Environment series also marked its first such gathering in Bend.) Propst pointed to voter-approved Measure 7, which lawmakers are struggling to come to grips with, poses a new challenge, since it could require compensation to landowners for any government actions seen as reducing property values. The Environmental Council plans fall forums in Portland and Bend on the issues surrounding Measure 7.
Propst, a former senior associate with the World Wildlife Fund and The Conservation Foundation, showed slides from communities across the West that have struggled in varying ways with the impacts of growth, some more successfully than others. Early on, he showed a crowd of fishermen lining the water: “This is what we call `combat fishing,’” he joked. Later, he showed a photo of a giant potato on a flatbed truck, one Idaho town’s proud symbol.
“Tourism is really an enigma,” scorned in an overly harsh manner by some communities, while naively seen as a savior by others, Propst explained. But no one doubts that dependence on tourism has impacts on an area’s economy and quality of life, oftentimes unintended ones.
West fails to properly tax tourism for its impacts, Propst says
“We still don’t tax tourism very well,” Propst said, a theme he would repeat in a town that, as he may not know, is currently debating whether to boost its hotel/motel room tax.
Moab, Utah doubled its visitor count in five years, as sort of a “ski area without skiing,” Propst said, with sweeping social and fiscal impacts that prompted one official to remark, “We went fishing for a little tourism and hooked a great white shark.”
He told the apocryphal story heard in such tourist destinations of the guy who arrives in town in his cutoffs with a $20 bill – and when he “leaves town a week later, hadn’t changed either one of `em.” In Moab, the Bureau of Land Management established a campground, and the fees helped provide revenues for resource protection, restoration and law enforcement. “Visitor satisfaction went up,” Propst said. “People were happy to pay.”
But problems persisted, such as a hospital that had to add on a wing to meet “the health demands of middle-aged men in Spandex,” but which sat idle for much of the year. Then there was the 350 percent jump in property taxes over eight years. The Sonoran Institute helped the town figure out how to “make growth pay for itself” (a common term in Bend) and that made the cost vs. impact “much more close to neutral,” he said, adding, “They still fight over other things.”
“I don’t want to paint too ugly a picture,” Propst said. “Often, disagreement is not over goals, but the means to achieve those goals. … People often share more common ground than they realize.” Just about every city wants “an economy that balances the old and new,” he said, “to promote locally-owned businesses downtown, rather than big boxes on the edge of town.”
But in establishing dialogue and coming up with “a shared local vision of what the community can be,” Propst said, the biggest challenge can often be, “How do we learn to listen to each other? You know, the opposite of `talk’ is not `wait’ – it’s `listen.”
In the town of Red Lodge, Mont., the biggest issue turned out not to be one of land use at all, but that “kids didn’t have anything to do.” So all segments of the community came together to create a Boys and Girls Club. “It was a confidence builder, that they could work together to solve problems,” Propst said. That led to 15,000 acres of conservation easements around town, keeping those lands in local ownership.
The town also enlisted the help of powerful Sen. Max Baucus to keep the U.S. Postal Service from moving Red Lodge’s post office out of downtown. The new facility is downtown, he said, but the Postal Service did one more thing to thumb its nose at the locals: “They built a porch on the north side, where the ice never melts.”
Tourism is not the same thing from one town to next
Along with a joint vision, communities need to build local policies around the special assets that make an area unique, Propst said. An agricultural landscape “is often one of the most important assets to people,” he said.
When one isolated Wyoming town lost its sawmill, town leaders decided “about the only game in town is tourism.” But they didn’t want the kind of “high-volume, bass `drive-by’ tourism, or `industrial tourism’ faced by Jackson Hole, 50 miles away. Instead, they brought together numerous agencies and created the National Bighorn Sheep Center, right downtown.
“I wish we had 20 names for tourism, the way the Inuits have 60 names for snow,” since the label covers many types of development that can be good, bad or in between, Propst said.
The challenges are not ones to be solved by government regulation, he said. “The fact is, regulations are too blunt a tool,” Propst said, since they “establish a minimum code of conduct that’s better at preventing the worst then bringing out the best.”
Displaying a photo of identical A-frames lined up on a hill, Propst said regulations often result in standardized, least-common-denominator answers that “don’t respect the unique local character” of a community.
Local governments can, however, “provide a positive example,” such as in Pittman Center, Tenn., which prides itself on retaining the historic character of the mountain community. But they can also provide awful, negative examples, Propst said – pointing to his own town of Tucson, which heavily promotes low-water-use xeroscaping, then put in acres of turf lawn around its new “monstrosity” of a library.
Propst sees need for `hometown heroes, `quality of life lobby’
Non-profit land trusts are an important tool, Propst said, as are “hometown heroes” and a “quality of life lobby” that can help towns get past the divisive, “us vs. them” mentality and true dialogue “beyond the plethora of public hearings and single-issue advocacy.”
No doubt unaware of the recent tussle between Bend officials and the Chamber of Commerce over a new sign code, Propst showed dramatic before-and-after slides of a busy Lubbock, Texas highway that saw its big, garish business signs give way over just two years to smaller, monument-style signs – and a whole lot more blue sky. “This was done without heavy reliance of regulations,” he said, and in fact was an effort led by that city’s chamber, in which businesses agreed to change their signs, so long as they “all hold hands and jump in the lake together.”
“Smart communities,” Propst said, are discriminating about new development. “If communities don’t decide what they want to go on the land … they often end up with lowest-common-denominator, cookbook projects.”
“Rural communities cannot ignore the changing economic reality,” he said, and that means focusing on protection of cultural assets.
But it’s not an easy task, by any means. Propst noted that U S West chose Boulder, Colo., for a new research facility, having scoured towns across the West – even though Boulder officials gave them no incentives and in fact rejected their No. 1 choice for a location. But the town has become so attractive, and housing costs have risen so much that only the firm’s highest-paid engineers can afford to live there. Others are among the 40,000 who commute into and out of Boulder each day, an “island” that has “created a huge traffic imbalance.”
“Balance is the key for communities to prosper,” Propst said.
Propst sees `no magic word’ to overcome polarization
The first question to Propst: “How do we overcome the hurdles of polarity?” – came from the most likeliest of questioners, Bend City Councilor John Schubert. And the answer, about determining common community values, ended with something perhaps as predictable: “There’s no specific, magic word that causes it to happen.”
Asked what cities can do about “the big-box (store) problem,” Propst said one key is for a community to invest in infrastructure where it wants development to happen, typically the downtown core. “Invest in the downtown, solve the problems they have,” he said. “Build a community ethic around downtown.”
“Limiting the size of a single business is permissible,” said Propst, (who, again, is not familiar with the limitations imposed on communities under Oregon’s land-use planning rules).
The affordable housing issue also came up, and again, the solutions aren’t easy, nor are they usually best from government, in Propst’s view. He noted that Aspen, Colo., built 1,200 low-income housing units and “they have not fixed the problem. If you have to solve the problem by public construction of units, you’re already way too late.” Instead, he urged a “balanced zoning code … changing the zoning around to promote cluster, high-density housing.”
On the issue of tourists and taxes, Propst answered a questioner by noting that the West has done well historically at taxing the extraction of natural resources, but that system originated decades ago, when “tourism wasn’t part of the formula.” Impact fees or sales taxes make more sense than a “burdensome property tax,” Propst said: “We don’t want to have sales taxes. … If you want to tax tourists, you’ve got to tax tourists, rather than rely on the property tax.”
City Councilor Kyla Merwin told Propst of the Your Community 2000 vision process in the 1990s, and of recent meetings that took place between Bend’s environmental and business leaders, to seek out common ground, But after a few meetings, she said, “we were sort of dead in the water.” She said they couldn’t decide whether to “do one small project, to show we can work together,” or stake out a joint position paper, so it “kind of fizzled out.”
It’s not enough to talk vision; institute helps create `confidence-builder’ projects
Propst called that outcome “unfortunate, because it creates a sense of failure.” Having been involved in “a couple of dozen such processes,” he said, the Sonora Institute changed its ways from the early role of a facilitator. Instead, it now goes into projects with a two-year commitment, and the backing of such groups as the National Association of Counties.
He said they also assure there’s funding up front, roughly $200,000, from a community foundation or the like, so that the community discussions can translate into some action, “so we know things can happen.”
The idea, he said, is to “do both short-term, confidence-building things, and lay the groundwork for long-term policy changes.”
Whether the Sonora Institute could be called upon for that sort of role in a place like Bend is anyone’s guess. But he did give the audience another perspective, and some views worth thinking about.