Beware 'Property Fairness Initiative'

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 "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 the government would act under a "pay or waive" system with valid claims being compensated. Otherwise, the regulations would have to be modified.

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, that is campaigning for the initiative's passage, claiming the state's farmers solidly back I-933.

Patrick Connor, director of research for the Washington State Farm Bureau, says fundraising efforts are heating up for I-933 supporters. Connor told the Seattle Post Intelligencer's Amy Rolph that he was not familiar with the specifics of Americans for Limited Government's association with the initiative but that the Farm Bureau appreciates that the national organization recognizes the importance of land-use changes.

Dan Wood, director of government relations for the Washington State Farm Bureau, claims that the opponents of I-933's "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 opponents' statewide 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 they currently have 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.

During the recent campaign, hundreds of small family farmers and farming organizations from across the state also have opposed 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 impact 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 campaign 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 Americans For Limited Government poured $260,000 into 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. Joe Tovar, who is president-elect of the Washington Chapter of the American Planning Association and serves on the steering committee of the No on I-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,'" Tovar stresses.

How expensive will it be? Tovar 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."

On Sept. 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.

Tovar also addresses 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 US 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 other, similar 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 claim of being "the voice of American agriculture."

A.V. Krebs publishes the online newsletter, The Agribusiness Examiner; email He is author of The Corporate Reapers: The Book of Agribusiness.

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2006

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