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Will ‘smart growth’ prove to be smart political topic?

Gore makes his pitch; but anti-sprawl tack doesn't always prevail

Vice President Al Gore stopped in Seattle yesterday to pitch the administration’s “livability agenda,” a plan to help cities and counties battle the ills of urban sprawl.
It’s a subject folks around here know something about.

Development has created one of the worst traffic problems in the country, helped transform the chinook salmon from a symbol of abundance to an endangered species, and steadily eroded the rural farms and forests.

Across the country, sprawl has spawned a potent political issue that has leapt from the domain of cities and counties to a place of its own on the national stage, a move welcomed by some and worrisome to others.

There is no denying the appeal of Gore’s proposals, particularly to suburban voters. If political analysts are right, the battle for the White House next year will be won or lost in places such as Issaquah, Federal Way and Shoreline, suburban cities where voters have been feeling the effects of growth for years.

“Think of who sprawl impacts; it impacts suburban areas,” said Ed Zuckerman, executive director of Washington Conservation Voters. “There is a fight right now for the heart and minds of suburban constituency.”

Indeed, pushing “smart growth” is shaping up as a main theme for Gore, who has all but announced his plans to run for president.

Gore outlined his “livability agenda” at an annual award ceremony for the Puget Sound Regional Council, a collection of regional leaders who oversee local growth-management efforts.

As part of the upcoming budget, the Clinton administration has proposed using tax credits to finance nearly $10 billion in interest-free bonds over the next five years for cities and counties to buy open space, improve parks, protect waterways and redevelop abandoned industrial areas.

The plan also calls for a 16 percent increase in federal spending on public transit, as well as millions of dollars in grants to improve local planning efforts.

Flanked by buses, Gore spoke to about 200 people yesterday in a garage at Metro’s North Transit Base, using a question-and-answer format to highlight some of the region’s efforts to control sprawl, including the Mountains To Sound Greenway and Sound Transit. He was joined by Gov. Gary Locke, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and others.

After the ceremony, Gore met with executives from about 30 of the area’s high-tech and telecommunications companies before departing for San Francisco.

Gore first unveiled his anti-sprawl proposals in September, but the issue has been growing for years. States such as New Jersey and Florida have approved so-called “smart growth” plans designed to save rural areas from development.

Washington state has had growth management for nearly a decade, the success of which is still bitterly debated.

“We’ve gone through three waves (of growth) in the last 20 years, and the result has been we have the worst traffic in the country,” said Dave Bricklin, an attorney who helped to write the state’s Growth Management Act. “(Gore’s proposal) will resonate here because we’ve been so consumed by growth and we’ve lost so much, and because people in this part of the country have so much to protect.”

University of Washington professor David Olson, an expert on state politics, thinks Gore has hit on a great issue as long as the economy keeps chugging.

But what if the Boeing layoffs take a big toll, or the world economic malaise infects the good times at home? “Livability” would lose its punch when voters are more concerned about their livelihood, Olson said.

While the idea of stopping sprawl may resonate with suburbanites, that doesn’t always translate into political success.

Anti-sprawl advocates in the early 1990s pushed Initiative 547, promising to give bite to the state’s weak growth-management regulations. Smart money was on overwhelming approval, but support evaporated by the time voters went to the polls.

Opponents convinced people the measure went too far, and lawmakers in Olympia promised to come up with a better solution.

Republican consultant Brett Bader, who helped to manage the “No on 547” campaign, said growth is a powerful issue in the suburbs, especially among baby boomers. But he said most people want to keep the solution close to home, not in the hands of federal bureaucrats.

“Bill Clinton was the first to tap into the fear of the baby boomers,” Bader said. “This is Al Gore’s attempt to mimic that. But it is a clumsy one, because no one wants the federal government to come in and fix it.”

Metropolitan King County Councilman Brian Derdowski, a Republican who has made a political career out of battling sprawl along Interstate 90, doesn’t relish the federal government getting involved.

“I’m always nervous when the feds grab onto something that belongs with local governments, because the tendency is to take it somewhere it doesn’t belong,” Derdowski said. “When the federal government gets involved in things, you get the lowest common denominator.”

But Gore insists his proposal would not meddle in affairs that belong at the local level, saying the government won’t become a “beauty commissar.” Instead, he portrayed the plan as a tool for local government to use as they see fit.

“It is designed to empower local grass-roots organizations, neighborhood communities and regional councils,” Gore said.