Opponents of property-rights measure force public vote on Referendum 48 by submitting a record number of signatures on July 21, 1995.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 9/11/2006
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7915
On July 21, 1995, opponents of a controversial law that would restrict land-use regulation and require government to pay for reduced property values caused by some regulations submit more than 230,000 signatures to Secretary of State Ralph Munro, forcing a public vote on Referendum 48. The measure was originally submitted to the Legislature as Initiative 164, funded largely by timber companies, developers, and realtors. When the Legislature enacted the initiative into law on April 18, 1995, opponents, including the League of Women Voters and environmental groups, had 90 days to gather at least 90,843 signatures to prevent it from taking effect unless approved by voters on the November ballot. The record-breaking number of signatures they submit foreshadows the fate of Referendum 48 -- the property-rights law will be rejected in November by nearly 60 percent of Washington voters.

Growth Management and Property Rights

The saga of I-164 and Referendum 48 (two successive names for the same measure) showcased some of the more dramatic pendulum swings in voters' ongoing oscillation between demands for environmental protection and concerns over excessive government regulation. By the mid-1990s, the environmental "revolution" dating to the 1970s and the growth-management "revolution" -- highlighted in Washington by statewide Growth Management Act (GMA) legislation in 1990 and 1991, followed by county and city regulations implementing the GMA's requirements -- had produced a property-rights counter-"revolution" in Washington and in other western states.

Timber companies, farmers, developers, and others who had for years operated with few restrictions found themselves having to comply with increasing regulation designed to protect the environment -- and neighboring landowners -- from the effects of their activities. Industry groups such as the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW) and some rural landowners complained that they were forced to pay, or suffer property value reductions, to provide environmental benefits to the general public.

Several states adopted modest property-rights laws in the early 1990s, but in Washington the Democratic-controlled legislature sided with supporters of growth management and environmental protection, rejecting bills that would have required government to pay in order to enforce environmental regulations.

The political scene changed when Republicans swept to victory in the 1994 election nationally and in Washington state, where they won the House of Representatives and came within one vote of controlling the Senate.

Protecting "property rights" was part of the Contract With Washington and Contract With America platforms that the Republicans pledged to implement, and supporters saw their chance. Even before the 1994 election, Dan W. Wood of Hoquiam was heading a petition drive to submit property-rights Initiative 164 to the Legislature. After the Republican legislative victory, timber companies, the Building Industry Association, realtors, and other industry groups contributed more than $200,000 to the initiative campaign, allowing it to pay signature gatherers to collect the 181,667 necessary signatures.

Legislative Maneuvers

Initiative supporters submitted around 232,000 signatures to Secretary of State Munro, but hundreds turned out to be forged and more than 48,000 were invalidated for other reasons. Nevertheless, the remaining valid signatures were 2,600 more than required to send the measure to the Legislature to either pass into law or place on the November 1995 ballot.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives quickly passed I-164, but the Senate, where the Democrats clung to a 25- to 24-vote majority, balked. Democratic leaders such as Senator Mary Margaret Haugen of Camano Island, arguing that the bill was so vaguely worded that it raised many legal uncertainties and could require taxpayers to pay billions of dollars to developers, urged that voters be allowed to decide the issue.

However, several more conservative Democrats led by Senator Jim Hargrove of Hoquiam supported the property-rights measure. With 25 votes needed to bring I-164 from Senator Haugen's Government Operations Committee to the full Senate, Democratic Senators Hargrove and Brad Owen of Shelton (later Washington's lieutenant governor) joined 23 of the chamber's 24 Republicans to provide the required margin. The full Senate then passed I-164 by a 28 to 20 vote, with six Democrats supporting the initiative and two Republicans opposed.

Opponents Prevail

The April 18, 1995, Senate vote meant that the property-rights law would take effect in July unless opponents gathered at least 90,843 signatures in support of a referendum to repeal the law, which would then only take effect if approved by voters. Even before the Senate action, the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, environmental groups, and others opposed to I-164 had been preparing a campaign to oppose the measure if the Legislature sent it to the ballot.

Following the Senate vote, they led a referendum signature drive that turned out to be the most successful in the state's history to that point, more than doubling the previous record number of signatures for a referendum. Relying almost entirely on volunteer signature gatherers (paid employees collected some 6,400 signatures at Seattle's Folklife Festival), the groups delivered more than 230,000 signatures to Secretary of State Munro a day before the July 22 deadline.

The successful signature drive placed the former I-164 on the November ballot as Referendum 48, which asked voters whether the property-rights law passed by the Legislature should be approved or rejected. Both sides spent heavily in the ensuing campaign. The Washington State Farm Bureau joined developers, Realtors, and other supporters to spend more than $1.1 million in support of the measure, and opponents countered with $800,000 contributed by environmental groups, wealthy individuals, and small donors.

Opponents focused much of their attack on the fact that Referendum 48 was so vague and potentially far-reaching -- extending more broadly than the measures approved in a few other states -- that its effects would only be known after years of litigation. Even supporters recognized the effectiveness of this argument, although they attempted to counter that opponents exaggerated the measure's reach.

In the end, voters solidly rejected the effort to limit land-use controls and require government to pay for reduction in value resulting from regulation. Referendum 48 was defeated by 59.4 percent (796,869 votes) to 40.6 percent (544,788 votes) in the November 7, 1995, election.

Sources: Bruce Rushton, "Signers Break Record -- Property-Rights Law Draws Many Foes," The (Tacoma) News Tribune, July 22, 1995, p. B-1; Loretta Callahan, "Property Rights Battle Certain," Columbian (Vancouver, Washington), July 23, 1995, p. 1; Lynda V. Mapes, "Farm Lobby Tills Fertile Soil -- Washington State Farm Bureau Lends Support To Initiative 164," Spokesman Review (Spokane), July 31, 1995, p. A-1; Kathy George, "Property Initiative Passes In The Senate," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 19, 1995, p. A-1; Rob Taylor and Kathy George, "Officials Stall On I-164, Hoping For Help From Petition," Ibid., July 17, 1995, p. A-1; Taylor, "Referendum 48 Breaks New Ground In Property Law," Ibid., October 17, 1995, p. A-1; Taylor, "The Voters Soundly Reject R-48," Ibid., November 8, 1995, p. A-1; Neil Modie, "Vote Showed Money Doesn't Ensure Victory," Ibid., November 10, 1995, p. B-1; "Property-Rights Initiative Passes Legal Muster," The Seattle Times, February 13, 1995, p. B-3; David Postman and Jonathan Martin, "Senate Joins Revolt Over Property Rights," Ibid., April 19, 1995, p. B-3; Postman, "Voters Turn Down Property-Rights Measure -- Not Much Sign Of A Grass-Roots Movement," Ibid., November 8, 1995, p. A-17; Election Results Search (November 1995 General)," Washington Secretary of State website accessed June 23, 2006 (http://www.secstate.wa.gov/elections/results_search.aspx).

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