Friday, February 20, 2009

Gristle: Excellent GMA Article

I think Tim Johnson's take is one of the best I've seen.
It argues to the heart of the matter of land use planning, illustrates bad things that have happened because of poor past policy, and does all of this succinctly and clearly..
Of course there are always some who will disagree, so I will merely reprint this Gristle with the author's permission, so that others may read it for themselves.

Wednesday, Feb 18, 20009

 The Gristle: Exurbia

EXURBIA: The syllogism underlying the hot debate on population growth euphemized as Whatcom 2031 goes something like this:
The public is compelled to pay some portion—by way of infrastructure (roads, etc.) and costly, ongoing support services (police, etc.)—for growth that is lawfully authorized. The public in general doesn’t care to fund any expansion of these costly services (and, moreover, vehemently dislikes the impacts of growth). Therefore, the smallest amount of growth that is lawful should be authorized.

The Gristle won’t debate the wisdom or appeal of this logic, except to note that, at some level, it misses the point. The point of forecasting population growth is (or should be) to best prepare the community for what is likely to occur.
Set the growth forecast large, and you do compel the unwilling public to pay large; set the forecast small, and you may fail to best plan the places where, and the densities at which, larger numbers might reasonably go. Here we enter the sunlight of informed land use policy.

Alas, actual population growth is not entirely ours alone to know—people elsewhere are mobile and able to move here to the extent of their interests and means. Our distant forecasts neither encourage nor discourage their interests; and we must expect that whatever forces drew us to Cascadia by turns in the numbers in which we arrived will continue to operate similarly on others.

Population forecasts therefore inform but are no substitute for effective land use policy.
Dick Morrill, emeritus professor of geography at the University of Washington and an expert in urban demography, observed recently that the population of the Pacific Northwest has quadrupled since 1950, a bursting expansion unseen elsewhere in the United States in the same period.

“The pattern of growth 2000-2009 is the same as from 1990-2000, overwhelmingly suburban,” Morrill writes.
“These 50 years of expansion are viewed by critics as classic ‘urban sprawl,’ but this is not mainly true,” Morrill cautions. “Rather it has mostly been urban growth necessary to accommodate a population four times as large, another 2.3 million people. Perhaps surprising to some, the average density, which did decline from 1950 to 1970, in the postwar suburban boom, has risen over the last 30 years.”

Ever the laggard, Bellingham continues to off-gas some of the lowest urban densities in Western Washington, fueled less—the Gristle’ll argue—by what we’ve planned than by forces we’ve ignored. Whatcom growth bounds past the suburbs to favor disconnected, widely separated development clusters requiring endless and costly support services.

Perhaps the most distressing piece of information from the Whatcom 2031 process is that while growth has lagged projection targets in the county’s urban centers and designated urban growth areas, it has exploded in the county’s incorporated rural areas, mushrooming more than 20 percent over the past two decades, four times the rate anticipated—the very definition of unplanned, unsupported, unconnected leap-frog development. We’ve lost an average of 1,200 ag land acres per year over the same period, the most egregious loss of agricultural capacity in Western Washington. What the community wished to preserve, we’re quickly losing.

This is exurbia at its most absurd; and the Gristle will argue it occurred not because we did not understand all-too-well that it might, but because the land use policy intended to address it was either ineffective or in some cases outright sabotaged. Now Bellingham neighborhoods begin to gird themselves for a protracted rebellion against COB’s toolkit to create urban densities, released last week—a struggle that may only exacerbate exurbia.

The situation is positively perverse.

Planners understand, all-too-well, the tools for land use reform.
For the county, the biggest reform arrives from downzones (actually a restoration—a reset, if you will—of rural zoning as it existed before a County Council of knife-fighting, bomb-throwing property rightistas decided to repurpose our ag lands in the early ’90s). This would restore thousands of acres to original rural character.

Next, impact fees that not only help pay for required infrastructure and essential services, but help equalize the costs of development so that it is no longer cheaper to build in the county than in the cities. Perverse incentives in land use might then recede.

From a developer’s perspective, why suffer the restrictions of the cities when the county offers none? With these reforms in place, you’ll begin to see the infill and density strategies proposed for Whatcom’s urban centers begin to pencil as they should.

To this we’ll add Whatcom needs to effectively challenge—perhaps as a class-action with other Western Washington counties—the state’s absurd vesting privilege so that vesting laws begin to look more like those in other states. This could purge hundreds of asinine, unfortunate and inappropriate land-use proposals, some decades old, from the books. The Gristle can think of no better place to begin this legal challenge than against properties around Lake Whatcom, an impaired waterway by federal listing.

Unfortunately, as we do a head-check of the current County Council, the Gristle finds neither the will or inclination or capacity to move quickly on controversial reforms. What’s worse, we don’t see candidates stepping forward to effectively create what could be a council majority in an election year.

To their credit, the council’s planning and development committee finally, after years of wrangling, proposed during their Jan. 13 meeting to bring a discussion of transportation impact fees in front of the full council… but their measure addresses only one (and not the most costly) of development impacts. It does little to help equalize development costs in order to jumpstart city infill strategies.

But will even this reform arrive as quickly as growth appears to be arriving? And will it make a difference if it does?