Sunday, July 17, 2005 - 12:00 AM

James Vesely
Property rights a slam dunk? Not so fast

Those of us in the chattering class have made several assumptions about the future course of the dirigible known as the state of Washington.

Among those widely held assumptions is that the 9-cent-a-gallon gas tax levied by the Legislature will be repealed handily by the voters this fall, and that a property-rights initiative patterned after Oregon's Measure 37 will gather similar support next year. I have my doubts that a property-rights initiative is a slam dunk for several reasons that have to do with the way this region is expanding and how we view this place called home.

A poll commissioned by Futurewise, the organization formerly known as 1000 Friends of Washington, contends there is no widespread feeling that government abuses property rights. In the poll's most important question, 71 percent of respondents said the government does not unfairly restrict the use of their property.

The poll, conducted by Evans/McDonough, reached 400 likely 2005 general-election voters in Washington during the first two months of this year.

Only 43 percent of people in the poll supported an initiative similar to Oregon's, a number far too low to withstand a strong campaign. Normally, initiatives need around 60-percent voter interest to win by 51 percent at election time.

Futurewise Executive Director Aaron Ostrom said there are four states where national interest in the property-rights movement will be focused in the next year or two. They are Michigan, Colorado, California at the county level — and Washington.

The stunning success of the movement in Oregon, Ostrom said, has resulted in confusion and legal limbo on the ground. Suddenly, people are waking up to discover a property-rights initiative has created the prospect of a new subdivision right next door, he said.

Somewhere in the old offices of 1000 Friends, there must be a dartboard with my picture on it, because I have written critically of the group's misunderstanding of the dark side of density. I'm not convinced we all want to live like sardines. But I think Futurewise is on to something when its executives suggest, through their polling, that people are more concerned about water quality and the expansion of bad development than government takings.

The beef of some property owners in Eastern King County is real. The beefs of some others have been exaggerated, although the stumbling rollout of the county's controversial Critical Areas Ordinance hasn't helped. The CAO, a rallying cry for property advocates threatened by limits on their development rights, has fed the perception and the reality that King County is out of touch with rural landowners.

In the Oregon campaign, those trying to keep intact the state's rigorous land-use laws made some real boners. A leader of 1000 Friends of Oregon, for example, was quoted as saying he didn't think land was a 401(k). The heck it's not. All of us are in our homes hoping — and often needing — to cash out one day. For the middle class, the only thing keeping us on the escalator going up for our kids is the investment in real estate. If we cannot understand the small landowner, we do not understand the fear of loss of investment that fuels property-rights movements.

But something else is at work in Washington. Inside the urban zones, 10 years of growth management have left families with two evident conclusions: First, there isn't enough parkland and green space given the growth we've endured; second, more development only adds to the congestion because there's little coordination between land-use and road strategies.

A property-rights initiative, if it comes to Washington, is going to have to explain how lifting restrictions on development is going to make our place better, how it is going to keep the landscape green and how it is not going to add to a complete traffic mess.

James F. Vesely's column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: