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Stop Sprawl
Model successful anti-sprawl citizen-led effort in Erie, Colorado

Background: The author - Reed Schrichte - headed up a successful citizens' effort to turn down a 4-square-mile (4600 housing unit) annexation to Erie (a previously small town that has grown from 20 square miles to more than 45 square miles in less than 3 years' time). The annexation was referred to the voters by the Board of Trustees/Mayor and the voters turned it down 938 to 578 (approx 60-40%).

Some "ground rules:"

  1. Understand the system governing land-use decisions and the legal rights of landowners and citizens. Colorado has initiative, referendum and recall, which are key tools for the average citizen.
  2. Don't wait until you need resources to start cultivating them.
  3. The ability to disseminate information unfiltered (censored) by the traditional media is crucial.
  4. Someone has to mind the store (keep an eye on the government and what's coming down the road).
  5. Neighbor-to-neighbor grass-roots campaigning is hard to beat.

A couple of things we had done before the big development proposal hit:

  1. We tracked voter turnout. This was accomplished by compiling a database of people who actually voted in previous elections. This allowed us to focus our door-to-door campaign greatly. We think that laws making it easier for people to register to vote (motor voter) have loaded the registered voter lists with people who tend not to participate in the process.
  2. We had established our own newsletter (called 'The Watchdog'). It was hand delivered to voters' residences. We think The Watchdog had established a high degree of credibility as an alternative information source by the time the battle started in earnest. The Watchdog had also been persistently chipping away at the Town Government's credibility with expose and satire.

Once the development proposal hit;

  1. Enlisting and motivating the activists was crucial. The people most likely to put time in were those most directly affected by the proposal, though not all were from ground zero. The esprit de corps was excellent. Non-residents were also recruited for canvassing, phone calling, and as donors. Campaign coordinators were available virtually full-time.
  2. We made the first strike. Our information was the first thing most people saw. Again we targeted our voter database. We also started our campaign in the parts of town where we felt our greatest strengths were (those closest to Ground Zero), then moved out from there.
  3. Our information campaign took a 3-pronged approach:
    • The High Road: a comprehensive, almost academic, analysis of the development proposal and the potential impact; (this really did not get off the ground as much as I would have liked!);
    • The Main Highway: our primary message to the voters, focused on both common sense and strong emotional messages;
    • The Low Road: a concerted effort to discredit the developer's promises, point out the flaws in the proposal and all the potential negative impacts, and reduce the credibility of the proponents. The Watchdog did most of the dirty work.
  4. We quickly focused on the key issues both for and against the proposal. Communications were efficient and to the point. We tried to relate to the voter's concerns, not necessarily our own. While in-depth information was available (see The High Road), we did not overwhelm people with data. K.I.S.S.
  5. We were not bashful about soliciting donations, and tried to get commitments early so we could determine how much money we had to work with.
  6. We divided up the town and gave one person responsibility for a specific area or list of voters to work on. At the same time, we allocated that workload so as to not be overwhelming (for example, if a person had to knock on 100 doors over 4 weeks, we gave them 25 names each week instead of the whole list of 100 names, which may have seemed daunting and discouraging).
  7. Our objective was to talk personally to each voter. After each contact we rated the voter on a scale from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree). These scores were stored in our voter database, which we could query based on area, score, or both. We also modeled canvassing methods for newer volunteers, initially going out in tandem until newbies became comfortable.
  8. We also established a publication schedule so that there was a regular and consistent flow of different information pieces which stressed various points and issues. Of note here was the "Lawyer Letter," a well-written dissection of the annexation agreement by Bill Myers, Esq., which was mailed to each of the voters on legal letterhead. This offered an unbiased outsider's analysis which was highly credible yet thoroughly damning.
  9. There were regular bi-weekly meetings of volunteers for updates, feedback, mutual support, tips, etc. Lots of space to ventilate. People definitely knew they were part of a large and supportive group.
  10. Our activists were relentless in writing letters to the editor of all the newspapers in our area. We also did not wait for reporters to approach us, we called regularly with tidbits they "might have missed." At the same time, with our own information campaign, we did not rely on the uncertain treatment of our cause by the newspapers, a decision which served us well subsequently as the newspapers were not at all cooperative or helpful.
  11. We focused on making a "first pass" over all the voters to determine where they stood, then made a second pass to recontact the undecideds (score of '3') and those we missed on the first pass, of which there were many.
  12. We saved a couple of punches for later in the campaign. We also knew something about the tactics the proponents would use, and we were prepared to counter them. All in all there were few surprises from the opponents.
  13. We placed our yard signs in residences, not on rights-of-way, giving preference to those supporters in high-visibility areas.
  14. The weekend before the election we called all of our 1's (strongly agree with us) and 2's (leaning in our favor) to remind them to vote.
  15. On Election Day we maintained poll lists, and called our 1's and 2's who had not voted by 4 p.m.

The final voter turnout was 50%.

Our campaign expenditures averaged $1.66 per vote cast.

Factors against us:

  1. We were against every established institution in the town. There was not a single individual in Town Government who was sympathetic to our side. We were also opposed by the Chamber of Commerce as well as secondary entitites like the Lions' Club, Library Committee and Historical Society.
  2. While the newspapers did print our letters to the editor, their editorial policy was neutral to unsympathetic (with a major one-time exception) and they did tend to muddy the waters rather than contribute any resolut to disputed issues.
  3. The usual Big Money professional political campaign by the developer (Union Pacific).

Factors for us:

  1. The scale of the proposed development was guaranteed to get people's attention and galvanize opposition.
  2. The Town Government and institutions had suffered recent drops in credibility and popularity. A couple of recent issue elections went against the official position (including a defeat of an open space tax by 3 votes).
  3. The professional political outsiders did not understand the local situation.
  4. The proponents were unable to shake the negative images of uncontrolled development and sprawl.
  5. Highly motivated volunteers under somewhat politically experienced leadership (reference to consulting with state-elected representatives for campaign tips).

Bill Myers
2590 So. Federal Blvd. #107
Denver, Co 80219-5939
(303) 935-6810; fax: 935-6922

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