Guest contributor Dan Staley is Planning Director for the City of Buckley, a small town in rural Pierce County, Washington. He writes this post as a private citizen. [Note: this is part of a series.]

I get all kinds of phone calls in my office from folks with questions about some parcel of land for sale: What’s the zoning? How can it be developed? When will sewer be available? These questions all share one important premise: that the rules today will be the same rules tomorrow.

But I-933 would eliminate these questions to my office because land use planning in Washington will purposely be thrown into chaos. This chaos will have two main effects for rural areas, in my view.

First, many people buy land in rural areas as security for the future. Three or four decades ago, folks bought land in rural Pierce County so that they could live quietly, retire, and perhaps pass on some of their land to their children, prompting the phone calls to my office. They followed the rules and the rules told them that they could live out their dreams of selling their land to retire at some point in the future.

But I-933 takes away our dreams of quiet living then retirement by making our property insecure.

  • Who wants to try to buy land to live quietly (and then retire on the sale of the land), when there is the possibility that tomorrow a casino or wrecking yard will be built next door, thus diminishing our quality of life and our property values? Under I-933, the rules protecting property owners from destructive or obnoxious land-uses next door get thrown out the window.

    The second effect that concerns me is that the “property rights” debate will narrowly focus only on how some regulations take away from certain properties’ monetary value. This narrow focus will distract us from more important, larger issues of rural land income that are just now (finally, in my view)being addressed. No one will talk about land that gained monetary value due to regulation. And who will discuss the productive farmland that has been preserved from development by enacting regulations?

    So what are the real issues here? We need to talk much more about why rural landowners can’t make money living on their land. But we won’t do that during the I-933 debates. We’ll only talk about a tiny fraction of the land-value problem that is embedded in larger systemic issues of trade policies, farm subsidies, industrial agriculture, and population growth. The underlying problem for rural landowners is not their lack of property rights. The solutions for the underlying, systemic issues that have marginalized rural landowners for decades in this country will be ignored while we are distracted by the special-interest sidebar that is I-933.

    On the surface, I-933 pretends it solves a problem. But it will create chaos and insecurity for everybody in order to pander to a special interest group—and that isn’t good for anybody. We need to address rural landowners’ plight. But we need to first discuss the real issues—not the sidebars—that created this plight.