Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Growth Management & The Art Of Pedantry

"For humans, honesty is a matter of degree. Engineers are always honest in matters of technology and human relationships. That's why it's a good idea to keep engineers away from customers, romantic interests, and other people who can't handle the truth." [Scott Adams, The Dilbert Principle]

As an engineer myself, I'm thinking maybe it's a good idea to keep us away from politics, too!

Pedantry (noun} - an ostentatious and inappropriate display of learning

or - narrowly, stodgily, and often ostentatiously learned - Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary [definition #2]

Now, I'm not casting any dispersions on anybody, but there are some folks out there who know 'just enough to be dangerous'! There does seem to be a lot of rhetoric going around that smacks of folks who just recently got around to reading Eben Fodor's 'Better, Not Bigger'. BTW, that is one great little book -read more about it at the end- that presents a great overview of what entities actually constitute the 'Growth Machine' in virtually every community in America. It also has some excellent ideas about how to effectively counter sprawl and the many hidden subsidies to growth.

What it doesn't - and can't possibly - contain is the practical experience and knowledge of existing law and local practice, that informs us as to how to effectively rectify the entrenched conditions that legally bind us to continuing policies that not only allow, but promote sprawl.

There, that's a mouthful, isn't it? There's more.

I will challenge anyone to compare notes with me, or dog-eared and hi-lighted pages from Fodor's book. That;s just a start!

Next, I will challenge anyone with an open mind to discuss how we can get from where we are on Growth Management to where we want to be. That includes specifically the City of Bellingham, and the rest of Whatcom County.

Any takers?

That does it for tonight, but tomorrow there will be more. I promise!

But first, from the past, the following:
Better Not Bigger -[Submitted to Herald on 9/19/2001 - 8 days after 9/11]]

One potential benefit of significant, life-changing events is that they may expose flaws in our habits and awaken us to broader perspectives, both individually and as a society. Broader perspectives help us subject our habits -and their cumulative impacts- to the scrutiny of so-called "full-cost accounting". Awareness of cause and effect relationships can then motivate us to assess and meaningfully change these habits. For example, awareness of the true costs associated with growth and development can motivate us to more carefully balance these against growth’s benefits in our community planning and design.

Recently, I read "BETTER NOT BIGGER", by Eben Fodor, which contains some fascinating information about the actual COSTS of growth to taxpayers. Published two years ago, this book summarizes the author’s research into those hidden costs of growth, which aren’t usually factored into community planning. Distinctly departing from conventional thought, Fodor’s findings and conclusions could prove essential in helping communities like ours to better determine and encourage the type of growth most likely to build-in the quality of life to which we aspire.

Here’s a sampling of a few provocative quotes and concepts:

o "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell" -Edward Abbey

o The average single family dwelling eventually COSTS taxpayers about $25,000.

o The "Catch 22" of Growth:
The better you make your community,
The more people will want to live there,
Until it is no better than any other community.

o Public acquisition of land for conservation or other purposes can often SAVE local taxpayers money.

o Regarding public involvement: "There are two stages to the public policy process: too early to tell, and too late to do anything about it." – Anonymous

This particular perception is troubling, but it too, may hold a blessing in disguise. Much citizen involvement already occurs in a multiplicity of ways. Pre-application neighborhood meetings between developers & citizens; Neighborhood and institutional plan updates involving property owners, renters, business owners and residents; Citizen advisory committees, boards and commissions; Visions for Bellingham; Center City Master Plan; numerous roundtables, seminars, public hearings, workshops; and, our constitutional right to vote, to name a few. If our existing public process is being discounted as inadequate, this awakening can evolve into valuable, citizen-driven, and supported, changes.

Fodor offers the following ten (TRUE or FALSE) questions test our knowledge about growing cities:
1. The bigger cities get, the lower the taxes are. (FALSE)
2. The faster cities grow, the lower local taxes are. (FALSE)
3. Police protection costs (per capita) are less in bigger cities. (FALSE)
4. Crime rates are higher in bigger cities. (TRUE)
5. The more cities grow, the more people are unemployed. (TRUE)
6. Bigger cities tend to have a lower cost of living and housing. (FALSE)
7. Growth creates costs, but the new tax revenues more than offset the added expenses. (FALSE)
8. More business subsidies mean greater prosperity for local residents. (FALSE)
9. Environmental regulation is bad for the economy. (FALSE)
10. Developed land usually produces more net revenues for the city (tax revenues minus cost of public service) than undeveloped land. (FALSE)

Fodor attempts to debunk what he terms the "Common Growth Mythology", a litany of arguments often used to justify "business as usual" development. Instead, he offers these "Twelve Steps toward A Sustainable Community" as more effective alternatives to enable the type of growth most likely to be beneficial over time:
1. Build a positive vision.
2. Improve citizen involvement.
3. Provide economic opportunity and equity.
4. Use land wisely.
5. Provide better information.
6. Use indicators and benchmarks for progress.
7. Use full-cost accounting.
8. Think long range.
9. Encourage efficient resource use.
10. Make neighborhoods walk-able.
11. Preserve unique features.
12. Recognize physical limits to growth and consumption.

Fodor concludes that we can do better than simply accommodating all the growth that knocks on our door. Instead, we can focus on how to become an even better place to live. By deciding to follow this advice, our focus can shift toward finding ways to improve Bellingham’s livability and sense of community, sustain our environmental quality, maintain and improve our public services and amenities, and strengthen the meaningful participation of citizens in government.