If bankers dodged some bullets when state initiatives aimed at curbing urban sprawl were defeated on Tuesday, many came away far more aware of the risks of letting the debate over such issues spiral into grass-roots crusades.

The most onerous of the initiatives, in Arizona and Colorado, failed to pass. But similar measures — which some consider a threat to economic growth — could surface with backing from activists and frustrated voters. That has some business interests reaching out to legislatures rather than take any chances on what remedies voter referendums may bring.

Jonathan Weiss, executive director of the George Washington Center on Sustainability and Regional Growth, in Washington, said Colorado seems to already have moved in that direction.

The Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry is working on a plan that moves away from the strict imposition of urban growth boundaries contained in the Colorado proposition. The Denver-based group, which represents businesses including mortgage bankers, led efforts against that proposition.

The Mortgage Bankers Association and the U.S. Conference of Mayors last month announced they had teamed up to craft a national housing agenda addressing, among other issues, the importance of investing in smart growth to combat urban sprawl.

Some lenders say that for any real progress to be made, all parties — public officials, mortgage lenders, developers, and citizens — have to communicate better.

Echoing this sentiment, Andrew Woodward, chairman and chief executive officer of Charlotte, N.C.-based Bank of America Mortgage and president of the Mortgage Bankers Association, said, “The key is not to stop growth but to manage” it.

Advocates of the business-government partnership approach acknowledge it is not without its flaws.

“If you have lots of angry people that are not informed” about what is realistically possible, “there will be lots of lawsuits, a situation that doesn’t help anyone very much,” said Karl Zavitkovsky, managing director of Bank of America’s southwestern real estate group

Measures lacking an informed view on lenders’ and developers needs, he added, can hamper efforts aimed at balancing concerns over traffic congestion, air quality, and similar issues.

Smart urban growth, characterized by high-density, mixed-use, and pedestrian-friendly developments built around transportation hubs, has become hot-button issue. Phyllis Myers, a researcher who prepared a comprehensive report on the ballot measures for the Brookings Institution, said that was underscored Tuesday. Voters weighed in on 35 measures in 23 states and hundreds of initiatives covering matters ranging from open space to public transportation.

“Local voters, in some cases working in the regional level, are seriously concerned about growth,” said David Booher, a prominent California housing advocate and executive director at the 2000 Project in Sacramento. “Voters don’t feel their governmental institutions are dealing with it, so they are going to the ballot to try to experiment with solutions.”

He added: “In California, we’re not strangers to local ballot initiatives, but the range and the breadth this year is truly unprecedented,” he said. Californian saw 50 local growth-related ballot measures this election.

Measures to increase open space in cities and to fund rail and bus transportation as an alternative to cars fared better than efforts to regulate development.

Florida voters passed an amendment to their state constitution to develop a rail system linking the state’s five largest urban areas and provide access to air and ground transportation. Santa Clara County, Calif., voters overwhelmingly approved a measure for a 30-year sales tax hike to connect the San Jose area to San Francisco’s subway system and expand the regional commuter rail service, light rail, and bus system.

In Florida’s Broward County, voters passed a $400 million bond measure to provide for safe parks, clean water, natural land preservation, purchase of undeveloped land, and the reclaiming of urban space.

In Ohio, voters approved a statewide measure to provide $200 million for environmental conservation and natural areas, open space and farmlands, while providing $200 million for the development and re-use of public and private lands by remediation or cleanup.

Ms. Myers said propositions for infrastructure funding and setting aside open space in urban areas may have been more successful than anti-sprawl measures because they are better at conveying to voters what the benefits are. Regulatory approaches, she said, tend to confuse people.

In addition, opposition campaigns to the anti-sprawl measures spent a lot of money on the issue, Ms. Myers said, making it difficult to determine what voters disliked about the measures. But she said both sides of the debate have to cooperate to form a broader consensus on what can be done to manage growth better.

Despite these efforts, the issue remains low on some lenders’ priority lists.

“If we were a larger lender, this might be a bigger issue,” said Richard Humphrey, senior vice president at New York-based GreenPoint Financial Corp. “With a 1% share of the national market, we still have a lot of room to increase volume through increasing market share.”

Yet some in the private sector are catching on. Fannie Mae’s charitable arm, the Fannie Mae Foundation, sponsored a conference in Atlanta to examine ways to harness urban growth initiatives to foster affordable housing and minority homeownership.


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