The lunch topic at the annual Western Planners conference was hurricanes, and how catastrophes can challenge local planning efforts. Slides of a leveled New Orleans filled the display screen above the tinkle of cutlery.
But within the Grove Centre last week, another storm was on the minds of city and regional planners gathered for their annual meeting. The storm was legislative in nature, but to some, no less a benchmark.
"Everybody's talking about it," said Jerome Mapp, former Boise City Council member and a longtime urban planner.
"It," is a measure on Idaho's ballot, Proposition 2, which would radically change the nature of land-use planning and regulation. The measure, fronted by Boise anti-tax crusader Laird Maxwell but funded by national Libertarian groups, would change Idaho's constitution to force government agencies to pay private property owners any time a regulation is deemed damaging to the owner's property values.
Mapp said the measure could effectively derail one of Idaho's biggest populist efforts of the last year, in which the Idaho Legislature effectively barred a California company, Sempra Energy, from building a coal-fired power plant on land it owns near Burley.
"Under this proposal, as I understand it, Sempra could come back," Mapp said. Because the Legislature's moratorium stopped Sempra from exercising their private property rights, "They could build it without any rules or regulations."
At last week's conference, planners fretted that such a measure, if approved by voters in November, would upend the normal planning process and invite legions of lawyers bent on nailing down property values claims.
"The whole purpose of planning is, 'Shared burden, shared benefit,'" said Patricia Nilsson, president of the Idaho Planning Association. "If we throw that away, it's just going to be neighbor versus neighbor."
What Nilsson and Mapp like, they say, is a planning process where, for the trouble of speaking up, a citizen can have input on a policy issue. Not so with the passage of Proposition 2, they say.
Many in the room were cognizant of the situation in Oregon, where in 2005 citizens passed a voter initiative, Measure 37, that, like Proposition 2, requires property owners who file a claim get compensation for loss of value due to regulations. The Oregon measure also went a step further, stating that a government entity can choose to waive the regulation that adversely affects the property owner. Researchers at Portland State University said in a report that Measure 37 "has disabled the tools used over the past four decades to prevent sprawl and preserve agricultural and forest land in Oregon."
That sort of analysis haunts Nilsson and her peers.
"It's a future that's really unattractive to most people," Nilsson said.
In his keynote address to the conference, David Siegel, president of the American Planning Association, addressed the Measure 37 look-alike bills.
"It's certainly no coincidence that you're seeing these Measure 37 clones surfacing in these states," he said.