Referendum divides voters and politicians as tool for land use decisions

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By Paul Mindus, The Saint Consulting Group

Should local politicians lead and make major land use decisions on their own or should they leave such decisions to voters in a local referendum?

Cities and states across North America have chosen different sides on this issue, some embracing the voter initiative as true democracy, others seeing politicians passing the buck on tough decisions when they should lead.

In Waterloo, Ontario, the mayor wants a local referendum to decide on up to $1.55 billion in light rail and rapid bus solutions to community transport. The local newspaper accuses the mayor of lacking courage to lead, instead costing the city $1 million to hold a referendum.

In contrast, Honolulu won plaudits for its $5.5 billion light rail referendum, in which Saint Consulting played an integral role, and is cited as one of America’s 10 best public transportation cities.

Some states, like Utah, tried to ban local initiatives on land use ordinances. Others, like Florida’s Hometown Democracy amendment, tried to require local referenda if a county or city wishes to amend its comprehensive plans for land use. An intriguing map from Citizens in Charge shows an uneven record for the 50 states, varying from those with no initiative or referendum laws to those that permit constitutional amendments, initiatives and referendums.

Light rail is both appealing and divisive as a linear land use issue (see Mike Saint’s blog post) that cuts a narrow transportation corridor across neighborhoods and communities, with landowners and businesses disputing the intrusion/wider benefits of mass transit and reduced car emissions.

Returning to Waterloo, Ontario, The Record newspaper attacked newly-elected Mayor Brenda Halloran for seeking a public referendum for light rail rather than having the courage to make the decision herself.

In contrast, Saint Consulting’s own Owen Eagan has written how Get Out The Vote helped Honolulu understand and vote on its own light rail referendum issue.

Let us know your thoughts about using referenda and local initiatives to decide land use issues.

Paul Mindus is editor of The Saint Report, email, phone 615 656 3798

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