Growth Control: Last Year's Issue? -- Voters Defeated Several Plans

What a difference a year makes. Certainly in Olympia and environs. Perhaps elsewhere.

A year ago, cries for more controls on growth seemed to drown out all other concerns in Thurston County, one of the state's fastest-growing counties.

Twelve months and an election later, there's talk that the growth issue may be losing its political potency.

Last November, in an election widely perceived as a referendum on runaway growth, Thurston County voters chose 15 ``freeholders'' to reshape local government. Candidates endorsed by a slow-growth group won 12 of the 15 seats.

The county's population had more than doubled in 20 years. Ground water was contaminated, shellfish beds polluted. Traffic was backing up. Open space was disappearing. And, to many, government seemed helpless.

The freeholders spent most of a year doing what they thought the voters wanted, writing a new charter that gave the county sweeping new powers to regulate development.

On Nov. 6, Thurston County voters rejected that new charter by a 2 to 1 ratio.

``If it had been on the ballot last year, it would have passed,'' says Sam Reed, the Republican county auditor who co-chaired the campaign.

``The psychology is very different now than it was a year ago,'' says Dick Hemstad, a freeholder and former Republican state senator.

Thurston County isn't the only place where pundits are wondering if the growth issue has peaked.

``I think right now we have passed the high point,'' says former U.S. Rep. Mike Lowry, who wishes it were otherwise. ``In this election, people's economic concerns overrode their concerns about growth and the environment.''

The Thurston County charter wasn't the only growth-related loser. Six Puget Sound-area counties lost bids to tax real-estate transactions to buy open space. Snohomish County's new wetlands-protection laws were repealed.

The biggest loser of all was also the most sweeping: Initiative 547, which would have imposed a statewide land-use planning system. It lost by a 3 to 1 ratio.

That crushing defeat wasn't widely interpreted as a death knell for the growth issue, however. The post-mortem analysis of state Rep. Maria Cantwell, D-Mountlake Terrace, was fairly typical.

``The campaign issue wasn't whether people wanted growth management,'' said Cantwell, who spoke against 547. ``It was whether 547 was the proper vehicle.''

Echoing the sentiment were Gov. Booth Gardner, legislative leaders, newspaper editorialists, planners and so-called ``good government'' groups who favor more controls on growth, but lined up with realtors and developers to oppose 547.

They called for quick action on a growth-management bill when the Legislature convenes in January. If it doesn't act, they said, the public would rise up again - justifiably - to run another initiative.

Plenty of people believe the growth issue remains a potent force. They point to the defeat of numerous incumbents in Seattle's fast-growing suburbs as proof.

But others wonder if voters have lost interest, if growth management has been pushed aside by other priorities, including worries about a recession and higher taxes.

``I don't have the sense that people are any less concerned about growth management - but they're looking at an uncertain future right now,'' says Seattle pollster Stuart Elway. ``I think people just want to hunker down. They don't want to experiment.''

Those who favor more growth control find the story of the Thurston County charter particularly chilling. It didn't propose a tax increase, and seemed to enjoy the broad establishment support that Initiative 547 lacked. But those factors didn't count for much on election day.

Initiative 547 got 32 percent of the vote in Thurston County, the charter just 34 percent. Hemstad, who supported the charter but opposed 547, says voters didn't make a distinction between the measures.

Cynthia Curreri, executive director of the Seattle-King County Municipal League, which opposed 547, finds that disturbing. ``I really hoped that people were saying the wanted controls on growth - they just didn't like the vehicle (547),'' she said.

``This (Thurston County vote) really makes me wonder.''

``It's too dramatic an example to ignore,'' says Brett Bader, who managed the campaign against 547.

``I think the growth issue is beginning to change,'' says Tumwater Mayor Peter Fluetsch, who opposed the Thurston County charter. ``This issue of no-growth or slow-growth isn't as prevalent as people would like to believe.''

The charter would have:

-- Given county government final say over development not just in unincorporated areas, but in cities - a first in the state.

-- Authorized election of community councils in unincorporated areas, which could adopt their own neighborhood land-use plans as long as they complied with the county's plan.

-- Increased the number of county commissioners from three to five, but limited them to three 4-year terms.

Proponents said the charter would put a single government in charge of decisions on growth that affected the entire county. They won the support of a coalition much broader than the environmentalists, slow-growth advocates and neighborhood groups that backed Initiative 547.

Gardner endorsed the charter. So did the Olympia newspaper. So did the Better Government League, which some say resembles Seattle's Municipal League, and the League of Women Voters, which was neutral on 547.

But opponents used some of the same arguments that were used against 547 - that it would mean higher taxes, that it created another layer of government, that it represented a loss of local control. And those arguments worked.

The charter vote closely paralleled the vote on Initiative 547. The charter got just 380 more votes than 547, out of more than 44,000 cast. In neighborhoods where 547 did best, the charter also did best, and vice versa, says Reed, the county auditor.

``We got outspent and out-lied,'' says Mike Layton, a freeholder and retired newspaper columnist. ``I can't believe that the public that a year ago indicated it wanted some controls on growth suddenly didn't care.''

Others say voters, fed a steady diet of news about the likelihood of recession, the federal budget crisis, rising gas prices and higher taxes, simply began to care more about their own economic well-being. Gardner's talk of cutting the state budget heightened that concern among thousands of state employees in Thurston County.

``When you go into a recession, all non-essential purchases get put on hold,'' says Mark Brown, another freeholder, Democrat and former Lacey mayor. ``You could have put the Lord's Prayer on the ballot, and if the developers had said it was going to cost us money, it would have gone down.''

Bader, who directed the campaign against Initiative 547, says he detected a similar drift statewide: A Labor Day campaign poll showed voters in fast-growing areas wouldn't mind paying higher taxes to get a better handle on growth.

``Early on, they were saying `We don't care what it costs,' '' Bader says. ``But the money argument became more of an issue throughout the campaign, much more so in fall than summer.''

Not everyone agrees voters rejected growth-management proposals solely because of pocketbook concerns. To Terre Harris, the Seattle public-affairs consultant who directed the campaign to repeal Snohomish County's wetlands regulations, the election shows voters finally caught on to what the slow-growth advocates were up to. ``I think they were saying we've got to get this pendulum back toward center,'' he says.

If the growth issue does fade in the face of recession, it won't be the first time. The late 1970s was another era of rapid growth in the Puget Sound area, and widespread concern about its implications.

That's when the verb ``Californicate'' came into vogue. Seattle topped several ``most livable city'' lists. Seminars on growth were conducted. State legislation was discussed.

But with the recession of the early 1980s, most of the concern about growth evaporated. Former King County Executive Randy Revelle says he had a hard time drumming up interest in the landmark comprehensive plan the County Council approved in 1985. The growth issue went into hibernation until the state started growing again.

Curreri says the Municipal League's polls consistently show that the voters who are least interested in growth control are those who lived through the big Boeing recession of the early 1970s.

``It's a fickle issue,'' says one insider in both Thurston County and state growth politics. ``It's there half the time. It's not there half the time. It's only there when times are good.''