Guest Columns

EWEGEN: MIKE STRANG'S LEGACY IS A LONG ONE

R.I.P. for a 'little country boy from Princeton'

The Colorado Statesman

Former State and U.S. Rep. Mike Strang — a “little country boy from Princeton” who helped transform Coloradans’ attitudes toward their land and legacy — died Sunday at his home in Carbondale at the age of 84.

Strang, a Republican, introduced an unsuccessful bill in the Colorado legislature in the 1970s to legalize marijuana, according to the Associated Press. Four decades later, Colorado voters caught up with him by becoming, along with Washington state, one of just two states legalizing recreational use of the drug.

But Strang was no mere ahead-of-his-time idealist. He used his engaging manners and Princeton-honed mind to become part of the “Great Triumvirate” — along with Republican Rep. Betty Anne Dittemore of Englewood and then Democratic Rep. Dick Lamm of Denver — who revolutionized Colorado’s land-use policies.

The three spearheaded the fight for intelligent land-use regulations through several legislative sessions, culminating in the passage of House Bill 1041 in 1974. The landmark bill signed by former Gov. John D. Vanderhoof allowed areas of state interest to be determined by local governments and set up criteria for administration of such areas. It also regulated a number of natural hazard areas.

Note the paradox that the primary power to designate an area of state interest was reserved for local governments. That bizarre outcome resulted from amendments to the bill by another former legislative powerhouse, the late Sen. Joe Shoemaker, R-Denver. As originally introduced by Strang, Dittemore and Lamm, the bill set up a tri-level land-use review process consisting of local and regional authorities topped, when appropriate, by the state land-use commission. The notion was that Denver didn’t need anybody’s help in deciding whether to allow a McDonald’s at Broadway and Alameda but that some activities, such as a later reversed Denver annexation to build what is now the Southwest Plaza shopping center in Jefferson County, would benefit from regional review since they had major impact on two or more counties. Likewise some issues, such as a new metropolitan airport, clearly had a statewide impact.

Land developers led the fight to strip those state and regional powers, assuming they could more easily dominate local officials. Covering the bill at the time, I questioned their logic. What would happen, I speculated, if Maggie Markey, then a lobbyist for the League of Women Voters fighting for strong land-use controls, were to be elected to the Boulder County Commission? It was no idle thought — Markey was indeed elected to that post and a number of cities and counties used their new powers to curb or regulate developments. Later on, we saw more than once the irony of developers seeking state relief from what they saw as onerous local restrictions.

The growth debate in the ‘70s featured the same basic tensions that still divide Coloradans. It pitted developers and business advocates against anti-growth environmentalists. But it also featured a division between citizens who wanted a strong statewide policy and those who wanted to keep such decisions at the local level. In 1974 and the sequel debate a quarter century later, local control won out. No matter how much those visionary planners in Boulder wanted to impose their views on Aurora, they settled for local control after realizing the trade-off would be that Aurorans would have a similar say in Boulder’s future.

HB 1041 basically handed cities and counties strong tools for planning and developing their territories and let it go at that. But however desirable local control may seem, it inevitably raises larger questions. Who serves as referee when two or more local jurisdictions fight each other? How do we handle problems such as transportation, air pollution and other issues that don’t respect political boundaries?

The original draft of HB 1041 went well beyond local control to establish strong regional commissions to reconcile city vs. city or city vs. county conflicts. A strong state Land Use Commission had the authority to impose and enforce statewide guidelines as well. Those regional and state powers were largely stripped from the final version. But in 1997, then-state Sen. Pat Pascoe resurrected the notion of strong regional powers with her Responsible Growth Act to establish strong rules to regulate growth. Because she was a member of the then-minority party, Pascoe’s bill was easily killed.

After Democrats gained control of the Senate in 2000, Pascoe continued the drive for a new “smart growth” policy. More deadlock ensued, but finally Gov. Bill Owens won passage of a growth package in a 2001 special session with the critical help of then-Senate President Stan Matsunaka and state Sen. Ed Perlmutter, now U.S. Rep. for CD 7.

That special session passed the most meaningful package of growth legislation since the 1974 laws. One measure required cities and counties to mediate inter-jurisdictional disputes. If they can’t reach a compromise, a court will decide the matter based on rational land-use standards. A state Office of Smart Growth is able to aid local officials in planning. The most important bill allowed counties and statutory cities (those without home-rule powers) to collect impact fees for such direct costs of new developments as roads and sewers. 

The package didn’t include the mandatory regional plans sought by Pascoe and the earlier Strang-Dittemore-Lamm team. But that failure was alleviated by the fact that in the Denver area the 49 member governments of the Denver Regional Council of Governments already have drafted a regional plan and now are working successfully to carry out MetroVision 2030.

So Mike Strang’s legacy was a long one indeed. Still, my favorite memories of him include how he deliberately developed a quirky country boy from Princeton personality to distract and befuddle opponents.

He had a habit of tossing his keys over his shoulder and catching them behind his back — sometimes while waiting to talk at a legislative microphone and thus distracting the audience from whoever was speaking at the time. He also excelled in rolling a cigarette one-handed — yes, in those benighted times, smoking was allowed in legislative hearings. He would also let the ash on a burning cigarette grow to outrageous lengths — while onlookers stared waiting for it to drop.

Of course, Strang used these antics when opponents were criticizing things he supported. By the time an ash finally fell, a critic’s time might be up and Strang would slyly move on to his own arguments.

He also had a gift for plain speaking and a hatred of the legaleze that often befouls legislation. At one point, he threatened to introduce an amendment to a confusing bill in iambic pentameter. That prompted me to write a poem in his memory that I ran in The Denver Post, which in that long-ago day wasn’t adverse to a bit of levity in its legislative reporting.

Oh gather my children and I’ll harangue

of the lonely fight of Michael Strang,

Who tried to make the legislature

Do something quite alien to its nature.

He thinks that the common run of man

should be able to read the laws of the land

and he says that this noble goal is not really

advanced by Greek, legaleze or Swahili.

He’s a rancher by trade, I think it’s in cattle

And he just can’t stand all this dull legal prattle.

Oh, his background’s a blessing for he needs all his ­­­wit

to tread his way through all the legal bull-feathers.

Oh let the barristers dab at their eyes with a tissue.

Mike Strang calls kids kids.

Only lawyers have issue.

Goodbye, my friend. You served your state very well.

Bob Ewegen logged 45 years in journalism before retiring from The Denver Post in 2008. Now a certified paralegal, he is director of research and communications at The Ewegen Law Firm headed by his daughter, Misty Ewegen.