Communities | Environment | Climate change | Election

Oregon Voters Could See More Community Rights Measures Going Forward


A train carrying crude oil derailed near the Columbia River Gorge town of Mosier, Oregon, in June 2016.

A train carrying crude oil derailed near the Columbia River Gorge town of Mosier, Oregon, in June 2016.

Emily Schwing/OPB

Voters in Coos County said ‘no’ Tuesday to a measure that could have blocked a proposed liquefied natural gas terminal and pipeline. The results are too close to call for a Lincoln County measure banning aerial pesticide spraying.  

These Oregon measures stem from the broader “community rights” movement – and organizers say there’s more to come. The concept of community rights animated a series of similar ballot measures in Washington in recent years and it’s now driving several Oregon voter initiative efforts. 

It stems from the idea that local communities should have say over corporate projects that could cause local harm.   

Nancy Ward got involved in the movement when she started seeing crude oil trains running through her hometown of Scappoose, Oregon.  

“This was a corporate decision made by (government) agencies, agreements between agencies and corporations. And those took precedence over all the wishes of the local community,” she said.  

Ward wants to flip that balance of power. She and other organizers are collecting signatures to put a measure on the upcoming November ballot that would target fossil fuel transport in Columbia County. It’s similar to the measure that failed in Coos County this week after a heated campaign in which industry opponents spent about $600,000 to defeat the effort.   

“Statewide, folk are all dealing with some kind of harm that is regulated. It’s a regulated harm? Yes you can do that,” Ward says. “You can spray pesticide, but you can only spray so much. We can harm you, but we can only harm you so much. We can put you in danger, but we can only put you in danger so much. And to stay ‘no’ to it, it’s impossible.”  

Organizers in Lane County are working to qualify a measure for 2018 banning aerial pesticide spraying.   

An effort is also underway to amend the Oregon Constitution to guarantee the rights of local government to prohibit certain corporate activities. Organizers hope to qualify a statewide measure for the November 2018 ballot.  

The community rights movement in Oregon is currently much more active – and has much more momentum - than its neighbor to the north. There aren’t any active Community Rights campaigns in Washington. But Kai Huschke, Northwest organizer for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, says there have been campaigns in the past.   

“The truth is, the only reason Oregon is where it’s at and is as active as they are, is because of Washington state,” Huschke says.   

Campaigns in Spokane and Bellingham lead the way in the Northwest. But now Huschke says the courts in Washington have made it difficult to get community rights measures on the ballot.    

That hasn’t happened yet in Oregon. In fact, a Marion County judge recently ruled to allow signature gathering for the statewide initiative to go forward after petitioners were initially declined by the Oregon Secretary of State’s office.       

But even if the measures qualify for the ballot and voters decide to support them, it’s questionable whether any of these efforts would stand up to legal challenge.   

That’s where the Lincoln County aerial pesticide spraying ban could become an important test case in Oregon. Final results of this month’s election won’t likely be known for several weeks. But if the measure hangs on to pass, expect to see Community Rights tested further in Oregon’s courts.    

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