Daring Mighty Things: Recapping An Evening With Three Land Use Legends

By Craig Beebe, Photos by Dave Garlock

Unprecedented vision, remarkable successes—but considerable fragility. Such were the characterizations of Oregon’s land use program shared by three “land use legends” on Thursday evening, January 10, at the first event in our 2013 McCall Society Speaker Series.

As Oregon’s pioneering land use planning program hits its 40th anniversary, former state representative and Secretary of State Norma Paulus, 1000 Friends of Oregon founder Henry Richmond, and former Director of the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development Dick Benner each shared unique memories and insight into the program’s origins and its future.

A capacity crowd gathered at the Laura Russo Gallery in Portland for the event, sharing in a rousing and provocative discussion. Introducing the speakers, 1000 Friends Executive Director shared a message he’d seen in a recent NASA promotional video for the Mars Curiosity rover. Entitled “Seven Minutes of Terror,” the video describes in harrowing detail all the threats that faced the rover as it descended to the Martian surface. And yet, he said, despite these risks, NASA’s engineers persevered and succeeded—a spirit aptly summed up by the tagline at the conclusion of the video, itself a quote from Theodore Roosevelt: “Dare Mighty Things.”

“That was what Oregon did in the 1970s,” Miner said, noting that the evening’s speakers had been directly involved. “I hope that in this anniversary year we can recapture that spirit,” he said.

"You Could Hardly Walk through the Capitol"

The large audience next heard from Norma Paulus. Paulus, who was Oregon’s first female statewide elected official, played a direct role in the creation of the program, as a legislator whose support was crucial to the passage of Senate Bill 100 in 1973. But the roots of the program, and her participation, go further back. Paulus described her participation as a new legislator in the early 1970s on the Marion-Polk Boundary Commission, one of the state’s first bodies tasked with a more coordinated land use vision. The Commission, created by Governor Tom McCall in 1969, was directed to find a strategy to control leapfrog subdivision development in the greater Salem region. It wasn’t easy going at first, Paulus told the audience, and people accused her personally of trying to take away their property rights. “People called it ‘Norma’s Iron Ring’” around Salem, she laughed.

But Paulus recalled a growing awareness during this time that something had to be done to protect Oregon’s farmland and communities from what McCall would later call “grasping wastrels of the land.” Many looked to California, where orange groves were being destroyed at an incredible clip for suburban development, as a specter of what Oregon should not allow. “Don’t Californicate Oregon—that was what people were saying,” she recalled. “It was an effective image—though perhaps the ministers didn’t like it,” she laughed. “People were thinking about what was happening in their backyards, and realizing we had to do something to control it.”

Paulus recounted the extraordinary cooperation across party lines that enabled the state to respond to this threat. A Republican like Governor McCall, Paulus worked with Democratic legislators like Hector Macpherson and Nancie Peacocke Fadeley to make the program’s passage possible. “We worked together,” she said. “It was long and hard, but very rewarding.” She expressed concern that such a spirit is harder to find in Salem, today. She also recalled the extraordinary leadership provided by Governor McCall—“an unbelievable communicator,” she said, who was supported by a “superior staff.”

Although there is much to celebrate, Paulus also shared her concern that a spirit of public involvement has declined in Salem today. When she served in the legislature, from 1971 to 1977, “you could hardly walk through the Capitol, because there were so many citizens there,” she said—people who had come from throughout Oregon to speak with their representatives, testify before committees, and take a direct role in their state’s governance. She described recent visits to the Capitol where the halls seemed devoid of ordinary citizens, a trend she said would be harmful to the state’s ability to tackle big issues like land use planning. “We need more people to be there, getting noticed,” she said. Later, she appealed directly to her audience to be more active in state government and in the outcomes of land use planning. “You’re responsible for taking care of it,” she said.

"The Test of Sweet Reason"

Next, Henry Richmond shared memories of working with Tom McCall shortly after the founding of 1000 Friends of Oregon in 1975. He remembered how McCall, known for his terrific communications skills and occasionally fiery rhetoric, was nevertheless a “believer in being reasonable.” In the early days of 1000 Friends, Richmond said, when the fledgling organization was determining strategy, McCall would often turn to Richmond and ask, gently, “Henry, does this meet the test of sweet reason?”

Richmond appealed for a return to a sense of “sweet reason” in matters of land use planning in Oregon. He noted that, as lauded as it is and as successful as it has been, Oregon’s program has never been more than a piece of legislation—incredibly fragile and subject to dismantling at the whim of the legislature or state voters. Running through a quick history of planning—from states enabling local governments to zone in the 1920s through the creation of more stringent, coordinated planning laws from the 1970s forward—Richmond noted that planning “has been controversial for the last 80 or 90 years.”

He said there is no reason to expect this to change dramatically, but that many Oregonians see the benefit of land use planning—and more need to. He pointed out that some early opposition to Senate Bill 100 came from farmers who thought it would harm their livelihood or the value of their land. And yet, he noted, the value of Oregon farmland has increased faster than the stock market since 1973. Oregon farmers are experiencing record farm sales, and the outlook for agriculture is strong—particularly as many other states have lost much of their best farmland. Richmond argued that to stay successful, Oregon’s land use planning and advocates like 1000 Friends, need to “stay focused on the fundamentals”—protecting farm and forest lands, promoting great places to live.

Most of all, “you have to win an argument of reason,” he said, recalling McCall’s adherence to a doctrine of “sweet reason.”

"Things Look Different Here"... And They Are

Our final speaker of the evening, Dick Benner, has worked on several sides of land use planning in his long career. An early 1000 Friends staffer, he later went on to lead the Department of Land Conservation and Development, and then served as counsel to Metro, playing a major role in numerous land use and transportation decisions with huge implications for the region and the state.

Benner focused his remarks on the successes of the Oregon land use program. “Things look different here,” an old Travel Oregon slogan, still rings true, he said. As evidence, he pointed to specific places like the Hood River Valley—which has the same acreage of orchards today as it did in 1973, despite incredible development pressures—and the intersection of highways 99W and 18 west of Salem, where agriculture still thrives in a location that in any other state would probably have been paved over for a retail center.

Benner pointed to recent Census statistics that demonstrate Oregon’s considerable success. From 2000 to 2010, he said, every city in the Willamette Valley grew more dense. Vehicle miles traveled—the sum total of all driving by all residents—declined in the Portland region, a reflection not just of people choosing other ways of getting around, but of land use policies that have provided closer connections between homes, businesses, and employers, making it possible to spend fewer hours and fewer miles in our cars for basic needs. These are successes worth celebrating, Benner said, and they still provide inspiration for the nation.

Yet Benner also shared concerns about the program’s future challenges. On the one hand, he said, he is worried about our ability to fully address the challenge of climate change. However, legislation enacted in 2011 has made it easier for the Portland region to take solid steps to do something, through scenario planning, identifying a strategy for transportation and land use that could put the region on a serious path toward meeting emission goals set by the state over five years ago. “We have the framework,” he said, “by doing more of what we’re doing, better. I don’t think there’s a region in the country on such good footing.”

A more difficult challenge, Benner said, is the outcomes of planning. “We can’t regulate great communities,” he said. “We can remove limitations, but regulations don’t build great communities.” He worried that the trend in recent years has been to place more limitations on private developers and to remove some of the tools that local governments could use to promote smart infrastructure investment and infill development.

Still, he said, the 40th anniversary of land use planning in Oregon is a cause for celebration. “This has been a very successful program,” he maintained. “We can see it visually and in the metrics.” And like Richmond and Paulus before him, he appealed to the audience to play its part in keeping the program strong. “It has endured because people sustain it,” he said.

As we look toward the 40th Anniversary of Oregon land use planning, 1000 Friends remains committed to working with Oregonians across the state to sustain and improve Oregon land use planning and to share its benefits widely in communities large and small. As the talk came to a close and audience members bundled up to head out into the chilly evening, the spirit felt mutual.

Learn about the next events in our McCall Speaker Series, including conversations in Salem, Lincoln City, and Portland, here.

And please join us for our annual Tom McCall Legacy Gala on March 1 in Portland—an evening to celebrate the 40th anniversary and commit to many more years of smart planning in Oregon. Click here for details.