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Stop Sprawl

Using Local Sprawl Fights to Elect Environmentalists to Public Office or Ten Years to a Greener Congress!!!

The Sierra Club's Challenge to Sprawl campaign has the potential to elevate environmental concerns to the defining issue in many local election campaigns, providing us with an immediate opportunity to elect environmental activists and supporters to public office. Not every Group level sprawl campaign will have this potential. However, prominent initiatives such as Urban Growth Boundaries, master plan fights and other "Smart Growth" agendas offer good opportunities. Other opportunities certainly exist when a controversial project such as a new road, a new housing development, a shopping center or other locally undesirable land use (LULU) is being pushed. When incumbent officials pursue these projects over the objections of a well organized opposition movement, there is an opportunity to "throw the rascals out" and elect our own candidates.

There are numerous successful examples of this tactic. U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) was first elected to the Baltimore City Council as a result of her opposition to an interstate highway extension through her neighborhood. Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), an outspoken opponent of sprawl in Congress, earned his wings locally in the early years of Portland’s growth boundary initiatives.


Too often opportunities to defeat pro-development politicians are missed because:

  • local activists fail to target the local politicians as the decision makers and instead flail away at government bureaucrats - typically permitting agencies. The bureaucrats and permitting agencies have little legal discretion and are often under intense political pressure (generally behind the scenes) to issue the necessary permits for a controversial project;
  • there is no credible opposition candidate recruited to run on the local development issue or, if there is such a candidate, the candidate lacks basic election campaign skills.

Some local environmental activists (Sierran and non-Sierran) have an aversion to electoral politics and do not appreciate the central role of politicians (and the secondary/subservient role of bureaucrats) in land use decision making and in other environmental policy issues. You’ve probably heard the rosy cheeked new volunteer say at a meeting, "I think what we really need is more education" when, in fact, the politicians know all too well what they are doing to the environment. Local Challenge to Sprawl campaigns need to emphasize the importance of politics and the role of elected officials in land use decision making, even when the politicians have no "official" role.


Another approach to politicizing local land use fights is to investigate campaign contributions from developers. The principal regulatory activity of local governments is land use, and therefore, the biggest and most easily identifiable source of special interest campaign contributions in local races is land development interests. In highly charged land use fights this becomes a potent election issue.

In recognizing the special opportunities that many local Sprawl campaigns present to elect strong environmental activists to public office, Sierra Club has an opportunity to train grassroots activists (already motivated by an issue in their own back yards) in both conservation campaign skills and in election campaign skills.


Finally, some of the environmental activists elected to public office in Challenge to Sprawl campaigns will develop as political leaders who will ultimately be elected to Congress. Merging electoral politics with your Challenge to Sprawl campaign is ultimately a means of a homegrown, greener Congress.

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