The Corporate Assault on Zoning

It should come as no surprise to voters in the upcoming elections that hidden among the various local and regional initiatives and propositions can be found a myriad of financial and tax benefits accruing to corporate interests.

No better example of such skullduggery can be found than in Washington State’s I-933, although similar efforts can also be seen afoot in California, Arizona, Nevada, Montana, Idaho and North Dakota.

Basically the Evergreen State’s initiative — the Property Fairness Initiative — would ban all zoning laws, retroactive to 1995. It would make it possible for landowners to be compensated if land-use regulations damage the value of their property while government would act under a “pay or waive” system with valid claims being compensated or the regulations would have to be modified.

In other words, the measure would require governments to compensate property owners for many regulations that reduce property values — applicable to not only personal property as well as real estate — but also to animals, cars, boats, businesses, stocks, bonds, trademarks and copyrights, according to a study by prominent Seattle attorney Hugh Spitzer who recently issued a report warning that that provisions of I-933 could undermine state and local rules regulating everything from food safety and auto emissions to professional qualifications for doctors and accountants.

A major push behind this initiative is a Chicago-based organization — Americans for Limited Government — whose chairman is Howard Rich, a controversial New York-based real estate entrepreneur who has been sharply criticized as an out-of-state meddler for pushing land-reform legislation in Montana.

Ironically, Chicago is also the headquarters of the American Farm Bureau Federation and it is the Washington State Farm Bureau, along with several county Farm Bureaus, which are earnestly campaigning for the initiative’s passage, claiming the states farmers solidly back I-933

Patrick Connor, director of research for the Washington State Farm Bureau, has told the Seattle Post Intelligencer’s Amy Rolph that while he was not familiar with the specifics of Americans for Limited Government’s association the Farm Bureau appreciates that the national organization recognizes the importance of land-use changes in the passage of this initiative.

Dan Wood, director of government relations for the Washington State Farm Bureau, claims that the opponents of I-933 “advertising has been misleading — suggesting that farmers are against the initiative, and that is not at all the case.”

Wood conveniently overlooks the fact that one of the most effective pieces of the opponent’s state-wide television advertising campaign to date has been a TV ad from Dave Hedlin, a vegetable farmer in La Conner, and a message from Aaron Flansburg, a wheat grower in Palouse pointing out farmers opposition to I-933.

According to the State Farm Bureau it currently has some 35,000 members in the state, yet according to the 2002 Ag Census there are 35,939 farms in the state. Thus, it would be a fanciful stretch of the imagination to believe that all farmers in the state are Farm Bureau members.

A recent small tractorcade by the “farm supporters” of I-933 through the streets of Seattle saw in typical fashion FB leadership off stage while letting their puppets in overalls mimic their mythology. As the P-I’s Rolph reported, Farm Bureau President Steve Appel watched the demonstration from the sidewalk.

“We think this is a common-sense proposal,” he observed. Responding to TV ads featuring farmers who opposed I-933 he “shrugged the ads off with an appeal to logic: `Would the farm bureau sponsor something that’s bad for farmers?'” — a “logic” and remark that undoubtily would evoke a loud chorus of guffaws from thousands of farmers throughout the nation.

For many family farmers throughout the U.S. the FB is seen consistently as concerning itself more of being a corporate agribusiness mouthpiece — “the enemy within,” the voice of basically an insurance company which likes to politically intimidate governmental policy and the public by referring to itself as “the voice of American agriculture.”

For example, nationally the FB membership boasts a membership of over 5.5 million members but the 2002 Ag Census tells us that there are only 2.1 million farms in the U.S.

During this recent campaign hundreds of small family farmers and grass roots farming organizations from across Washington have been opposing I-933, including the Western Washington Agricultural Association, the United Farmworkers, Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland, and Woodward Canyon Wineries of Walla Walla.

Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland has written a position statement that explains why Initiative 933 will hurt farming. The Skagit Valley Herald in the middle of the state’s richest farmland puts the impacts of Initiative 933 on farming in the clearest terms: “If I-933 is approved…you can kiss farming good-bye in Skagit County.”

The fact that the Bureau has taken on the role of the largest contributor to the Yes on I-933 is confirmed by a fellow funder — the Building Association of Washington. As Executive Vice President Tom McCabe pointed out to reporter Rolph, the Building Association decided that I-993 “wasn’t going to be a priority for us this year, and there were other things that we were going to be concerned about.”

Clearly then it has been the Washington State Farm Bureau and subsidiary county farm bureaus that have produced the majority of the remaining donations. With less than a month before the elections the out-of-state Americans For Limited Government has poured $260,000 in to the campaign with the State Farm Bureau and its county affiliates contributing $190,000.

The initiative’s sponsors have claimed that what they are after is fairness.

John W. Tovar who is president-elect of the Washington Chapter of the American Planning Association and serves on the steering committee of the No on 933 campaign, scoffs at such a claim.

“But what’s fair about a sweeping rollback of our state’s land-use protections ” the standards that keep our drinking water clean, maintain the livability of growing cities and towns, safeguard neighborhoods from property-devaluing nuisances, protect farms, forests and green spaces from encroaching development, and safeguard habitat for shellfish, orca and salmon?

“Our laws now require land-use decisions to be made out in the open, he adds, “through a democratic process that considers and protects everyone’s property rights, not just a select few. What’s fair about an I-933 system that would hide development decisions from public view and grant maximum financial profit to certain property owners, neighbors be damned?

“The core of I-933 is a simple and clever legal scheme called “pay or waive.” Such schemes dramatically lower the threshold for when compensation must be paid for restrictions or limitations on property use and value ” regardless of how small the limitation or how important the public protection served by the restriction.”

With the passage of I-993 when an owner claims that a regulation restricts or limits the value or use of property, the initiative would compel the community to choose between paying taxpayer dollars to enforce the law or else waiving those requirements.

“Although the language of I-933 states that the “government shall pay,” in reality this means “taxpayers shall pay.” Tover stresses.

How expensive? Tover replies: “because I-933 is retroactive at least to 1996, the Association of Washington Cities estimates that I-933 payouts would cost taxpayers a staggering $3.5 billion to $4.5 billion. This works out to between $2,400 and $3,000 per household. That doesn’t even count future years or the cost of the added bureaucracy needed to administer I-933.”

However, on September 26 a University of Washington study estimated I-933 would cost taxpayers almost $8 billion during the next five years. The study came one week after the state’s Office of Financial Management estimated that in the next six years, I-933 would cost $7 billion to $9 billion.

Tover also has addressed the question of “eminent domain.”

“Voters should also not be fooled by shameless and hollow rhetoric about how I-933 is supposed to save us from `eminent domain.’ Eminent domain is the power of government to condemn private land for public purposes, paying the owner fair market value for the property. Last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. New London alarmed many people because it arguably broadened the definition of `public use.’

“Despite their rhetoric,” he adds, “the backers of I-933 must admit that their initiative would make absolutely no change to our state’s laws on eminent domain. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Voters should see through their cry of Kelo for the cynical and misleading campaign ploy it is.”

With the backing of I-993 and similar other initiatives around the country it is once again demonstrably clear than when it comes to a choice between representing family farmers’ best interests and giving due homage to its corporate paymasters, the Farm Bureau is never reticent about where its true interests lie.

In doing so it gives a vicious lie to its historic claim as being “the voice of American agriculture”

AL KREBS is the editor of The Agribusiness Examiner “Monitoring corporate agribusiness from a public interest perspective“. He can be reached at