Friday, July 01, 2005

Scenes from a Planning Forum

One thing that I have consistently blogged about my employer is the generally misplaced nature of concern for the future. The Central Valley, if you are not familiar with the area, is dry, dirty (air quality) place dependent on agriculture. We pride ourselves on the fact that we grow the nation’s fruits, vegetables and nuts while supplying California with one quarter of its milk supply. At the same time, we are burdened by the fact our water supply is limited and our air quality is poor. We must also deal with runaway growth as both demographic pressures and real estate speculation have combined to fuel a stunning housing boom that nets us thousands of new units a year. Although this area has a number of issues to deal with, our four chief areas of concern are: air quality, water, agriculture and growth.
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Some would add a fifth, socioeconomic characteristics (such as crushing poverty and ultra-low educational attainments) as a significant problem for the county. Planners are loath to discuss human issues however and usually refer this intractable problem to the Health and Human Service Department. Never mind the small fact that agricultural and growth policies drove those population increases in the first place. In any case, our focus remains fixated on those first four subject areas, which I will discuss in reverse order.
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Case in point: the most recent General Plan Public workshop held earlier this week.
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At this meeting, various individuals representing other governmental agencies, industry groups, activist groups, utilities, large employers and agricultural interests met to discuss the differing General Plan options, while understanding some of the constraints that could be overlaid on those options. As usual in these meetings, the contracted consulting planner started out with a presentation on the computer simulations of the various growth models and the resulting population and residential consumption figures. Though the results were outrageously optimistic and projections through the roof, apparently we still have enough land left to develop under most scenarios. And develop it we must, if we are going to continue to grow by that 2% per year figure for the next 25 years.
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That does bring up the next issue that concerned many county officials at the meeting: agricultural protection. With each acre of suburbia that gets constructed, another acre of farming has been lost forever. The protection of this industry is paramount to the leadership here in the county. Towards that end, the county (and state) utilize different strategies to try and keep farming alive in the valley. This includes land restrictions on the development of farmland, which in this state is principally called Williamson Act protection. The interesting thing is that there are tougher protection measures which would preclude development altogether. Many farmers are not keen to accept these ultra-strict restrictions however. So why don’t they? As it turns out, many view their farm as their retirement plan. Farm for 30-40 years and then sell the property and use the profits as they see fit in retirement. By restricting development on their property, the property owner forfeits a luxurious or comfortable retirement. Still, even with feverish growth, no scenario would result in all of the one million plus acres of farm land being converted to urban use.
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Air quality is a perennial favorite topic of discussion at almost any planning meeting and this one was no exception. This is not surprising, given the fact this valley consistently has the second worst air quality in the nation. Like global warming, there is considerable debate on what to do about it. Environmental activists often go after the largest contributors, namely Big Ag and Big Biz. As a result, many large projects now see environmental challenges on this front. Big Biz is keen to point the finger at Big Ag, while big Ag would like to hold the business/developer contingent responsible. Transportation planners blame traffic congestion and offer up the fixes of bigger, better roads (with a side helping of transit). Everyone blames the Bay Area for dumping their pollution on us.
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The truth of the matter is that it was population growth that created our miserable air quality. It has to be when you consider that virtually every process or piece of machinery has been upgraded over the past 40 years to run much cleaner. Yet we still choke on the air. It is yet another clear reminder how growth, no matter what type it is, will consume any efficiencies wrought from the system. We may have cars that are vastly more efficient than our 1970’s models, but any gains in emissions have been swamped by the fact there are more than 3 times as many cars out there now than back then. The same goes for farming. Most acreage in the county has been farmed consistently for a half century or more. Farmers however, have been wringing ever more efficiencies out of their land. Instead of a single season’s worth of crops, we may have two or even three. Instead of grazing operations we have confined animal farming operations (i.e. factory farming). This of course has impacts.
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Although it is clear that growth is the cause of these impacts, the planning establishment is still keen on treating the symptoms instead.
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As important as air quality is to the quality of life, water is far more important in the eyes of this county’s leadership. Most individuals present at the forum had the capability to understand that simple but vital fact. One person even commented that, “water availability could potentially call into question the assumption that the county could even grow 30% over the next quarter century.”
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Hallelujah. At least someone can question growth itself.
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Unfortunately most discussion focused on technological and policy choices to reduce water usage. Farming interests were keen to tout technological advances that reduced water wastage, planners focused on the need to grow smarter (higher density developments without lawns) and civil engineers described some projects to capture ever more flood run-off (as rare as that is) and redirect that to the aquifer. In the end, the consensus arrived at from that meeting is that a county water model should be developed and a collaborative group formed to make those difficult decisions on how to deal with an ever more precious resource.
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In the midst of the discussion of water concerns, a representative for the local utility company asked about energy planning. Now, having previously talked to that individual, I know his focus was on the distribution of energy, not its production. The response to his question was surprising, but not unexpected.
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The consulting planner matter-of-factly announced that, “we planners do not consider natural gas and electricity as the same kind of restraint [on development] as water. If electricity or water is needed for a development, it will be provided for by the utility and/or the developer.”
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Another planner added that, “water is the constraint. We are not getting any more of it.”
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Gosh, these planners are giving my profession a bad rap. Not only are they not considering all possibilities or scenarios, now they believe that developers and utilities create energy and water is the only limiting factor.
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No wonder I have decided to move.
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With this motley crew of numb-skulls in control of things the coming energy crisis will hit them like a ton of bricks. Only then will they consider this a true emergency.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Southsider said...

We just sold the house and are renting. We'll be taking a swing through N. California, Oregon and Montana with the same thoughts in mind as you.

7/01/2005 9:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How about Minnesota, the land of a thousand lakes ? That is where I've thought about moving. The GNW cat is out of the bag. Perhaps you could write a good scholarly book on where the most sustainable places are and why (to include natural as well as man-made factors). I live in Arlington, VA which thinks of itself as a well planned community, but as where you are, they are reactionary, concentrate on short-term symptoms and do very little actual long-term thinking about sustainablility. Plus, we are surrounded by one of the larger clusterfucks of non-planning in the US. Looking forward to your book...

7/02/2005 10:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

die a miserable death in a hell hole destined for self-inflicted destruction.

Alas, where does one go that won't have that feature?

7/02/2005 11:29 PM  
Blogger monkeygrinder said...

Yeah, I'll be interested to see where you end up.

7/06/2005 10:54 PM  

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