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Voters shouldn’t be swayed by extremism

It doesn’t take an expert to see that there’s something different about this coming election. A brief glance back at the last decade of Nevada County politics casts some light on what’s changed, and why.

The last few election cycles all had a common theme, articulated by a loosely organized coalition of neighborhood and environmental groups but shared by a broad cross-section of county residents and spanning age, income and political affiliation: “If we’re going to grow, let’s protect our quality of life in the process.” Fueled by concern about traffic, diminishing air quality and the specter of Roseville’s suburban sprawl swallowing Auburn and creeping up Highway 49, the voters responded to that message, swapping out last decade’s incumbents for some new faces who, in addition to competently handling the day-to-day business of county government, began to pay much closer attention to issues of growth and development.

It’s safe to say this shift didn’t set well with some of the county’s major political players. Large landowners looking forward to eventually subdividing their properties – particularly properties located in rural portions of the county – saw their expectations of windfall profit decline under a board less inclined to grant them the densities they’d hoped for. The development industry found costs rising as their projects received greater scrutiny. Big timber interests like Sierra Pacific Industries (the second-largest landowner in the United States) began to see this board as an obstruction to their plans of increasing clearcutting on their own properties and gaining more access to our lumber-rich national forests. And property rights activists were infuriated by actions like the bestowing of “Wild and Scenic” status upon the South Yuba River, which they perceived as favoring the environment over private enterprise.



It was only a matter of time before these various groups, like the neighborhood and environmental groups that preceded them, got organized, but many observers were taken aback by how quickly and effectively these new groups were able to get their pro-property rights, anti-regulation and anti-environmental message out onto the streets. Looking back, though, it’s not hard to see that these local property rights groups – Protect Your Property Rights, Inc. (PYPR), Californians for Property Rights, Inc. (CPR) and the grand-daddy of them all, the California Association of Business, Property & Resource Owners (CABPRO) – owe their success to one huge advantage they hold over the neighborhood and environmental groups they’re challenging for control of Nevada County – money.

How much money? Nobody knows for sure, because groups like CABPRO, CPR and PYPR are not required to disclose who their contributors are, how much they gave or how that money is being spent, but only a couple of checks from their well-heeled corporate sponsors would rival all the individual contributions on which local neighborhood and environmental groups depend. And the anti-planning activists have spent their money well, on paid staff instead of volunteers, and for mailers, signs and paid advertisements, generating such a firestorm of disinformation around NH 2020 that the program died in midstream. They continued to press their newfound influence to secure a beachhead for their anti-regulation and anti-environment supervisorial candidates at the local Nevada County Republican Central Committee in a purge which resulted in the ouster of chairwoman Karen Chileski for being “too liberal.” (Only in Nevada County could someone with the longstanding conservative credentials of someone like Ms. Chileski be considered “too liberal.”)




And now, having achieved their first two objectives, the property-righteous have turned their collective gaze to the fall elections – with a vengeance. Not willing to put all their money on a couple of single-issue candidates, particularly since that single issue – NH 2020 – was put to rest last summer at their request, the anti-planning coalition conceived of a bold knockout punch – Measure D – which, if passed (and if able to withstand the court challenges to its intentionally vague wording) would force the county to reimburse any landowner affected in any way by land-use regulations, effectively taking the county out of the business of planning and land-use regulation for all time.

But to be perfectly honest, I’m not too concerned about Measure D – I have too much faith in the voters of Nevada County to think they would grant a speculative windfall to a handful of large landowners and developers by putting their own neighborhoods, their property values and their quality of life at risk. And I don’t think the voters are going to turn their backs on the accomplishments of our two incumbent supervisors and elect someone as inexperienced and unaware of the issues as Robin Sutherland or as extreme and irrational as Drew Bedwell.

No, I think the real, lasting damage done by the anti-planning, anti-environmental, pro-property rights coalition behind Measure D and the supervisorial challengers has been in the loss of civility and the deterioration of public discourse over the last 12 months. The vicious campaign against NH 2020 – which preyed on the fears of property owners, lied so blatantly about takings and condemnation, demonized conservationists and made such liberal use of tactics of intimidation and confrontation – drove a wedge deeply into a community already divided. The campaigns of 2002 are just salt rubbed more deeply into those wounds. I pray the voters will not be swayed by rhetoric and extremism. And I pray that when we put this election behind us, we can resume the dialogue that ended so abruptly, and once again begin to discuss the challenges that face us.

Brian Bisnett, a landscape architect and environmental planner living at Higgins Corner, writes a monthly column.


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