Mendo Island Journal — Timely. Useful. Sometimes Cranky.

Is No Growth Also Smart Growth?


[Mayor Phil Baldwin sent the following to us noting "I found this a telling bee for our bonnets. Why is Williamson's argument marginalized or nonexistent in Mendo (and most American) environmental circles?" -DS]
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[Chris Williamson offers four arguments that planners can use to argue that "No Growth" policies are valid positions to take.]

Most local planners view some accommodation of projected population increases as the “right thing to do” and reluctantly support “No Growth” policies when forced to by their elected officials and/or voters. Many of us work and/or live in communities with growth pressure where some of the amenities and quality of life that residents enjoy are threatened by growth. Following are four arguments to respectfully offer the “No Growth” alternative as an arguable position for local planners.

1. There Is No End To Population Growth

In California, planners talk about “the next 15 million Californians by 2020″ as if that is the sum population to accommodate with housing and jobs and water, and then we’re done. But five years from now we’ll be talking about “the next 15 million Californians by 2025″; and five years later, “15 million by 2030.” There is no foreseeable end in site to growth in California and, to varying degrees, in many other areas of the Nation.

Based on the Census Bureau’s national population projections over your lifetime and children’s, any desirable area is going to see continuous demand from internal growth, intra-state migration (as increasingly digital job-holders seek out desirable places to live), and international migration.

If your city or county develops housing and jobs to meet 20-year projections, the No Growth argument is that it will only encourage more people in the long-term as well. The analogy is an added freeway lane — there is a temporary reduction in traffic volume which attracts more drivers and congestion returns.

Arguably, there are really only two future scenarios for communities in desirable areas: 1) high housing costs with some preserved open space and agricultural and 2) high housing costs without open space and agriculture. Accommodating growth never ends, therefore the rational choice is to draw the line now while you still have something to save, no matter the consequences.

2. Buildout Is A Myth

As the activist cities and counties shut down growth one by one, growth will flow like water down the path of least resistance. General Plans will change little by little — a parcel here, a policy there — as market pressures increase. Homeowners will be tempted to “cash out” their equity rather than stay and fight development since tax laws now allow substantial tax-free capital gains. Rents will rise and make recycling of older commercial areas profitable.

Infill and Smart Growth policies are temporary fixes. There are only so many infill sites, and Smart Growth may raise the average density but in the long run that, too, will eventually “fill up.” More and more surrounding open spaces are being taken ‘off the market’ for species habitat or water sheds or parks or preserves. Here in California, finding new sources of water is now a bigger hurdle and no county or city wants to front infrastructure costs. Several counties have effectively shut down the conversion of agriculture to urban uses by requiring voter approval of “open space to urban” General Plan amendments, a relatively simple and court-tested method that may spread across the country.

All these events are slowly drawing a noose around entire regions of existing urban areas as opposed to just one or two cities here and there. As a result, we are seeing longer “interregional commuting.” There are exceptions for pro-growth areas but even these areas will soon find themselves inundated with development and congestion so intense that they, too, may change their tune. In a state of constant population growth, you either build up or out, and building out is becoming less and less of an option and building up is contentious. The third alternative is to “just say no”, although few planners willingly take that position.

3. It Shouldn’t Only Be Just A “Buyer’s Market”

Our legal system favors the “buyer” when it comes to growth. In a sense, local governments and their communities are “sellers” and the new households (formed by current residents or newcomers) are the “buyers.” We shop for communities that offer the best mix of amenities for our dollars and what we can or want to spend. Local governments, on the other hand, are required to provide services to everyone within their jurisdiction, if you find a place to live.

Unfortunately, the poor will always get pushed around in a market-based economy and there are very few communities willing to risk being inundated with additional population as a result of trying to increase housing supply to help the local low-income population. In many cases, the new housing leads to the middle class “spreading out” and/or a second home market and the poor are still crowded into a small corner or, in some areas, forced out of the area and into long commutes.

Trying to accommodate rapid population growth in areas where it’s not welcome is similar to correcting inherent flaws in both democracy — in that incoming households cannot vote locally and local voters are motivated to protect what they have — and our market-based economy, where higher income households will outbid the poor. It’s a tall order that will likely fail.

Then, there is the underlying tension between regional and state governments and the business community who generally like some regular growth and those local voters who don’t want any growth and elect local officials with the same mandate. For example, California’s Regional Housing Need Allocation program says, in essence, that local communities “have to sell” to future buyers at prices the buyers want to pay (i.e. a range of values and rents).

Isn’t that inherently unfair? The market should work both ways. If buyers can look around and ‘buy’ into a community that is being forced to produce housing at the buyer’s preferred price, then the selling communities should also have the right to sell at its preferred price. If a community or region refuses to grow, the result may be higher prices, economic displacement and hardship, and dangerous crowded housing in exchange for keeping a desirable quality of life for the “already landed” middle- and upper-income groups. If the local voters are willing to pay this price, why should planners try to prevent it? If you want to lessen those undesirable impacts, then restrict both supply and demand, but not just supply. Otherwise the only control of demand is higher housing prices.

Who will win in a showdown between local “NIMBY – No Growth” and regional and state planning “you must take a fair share?” Who elects state legislators? If the stakes get high enough, look for a statewide No Growth “get rid of housing allocations” movement similar to the California Proposition 13 tax revolt of the 1970′s. Whose side do you want to be on? Welcome to the realities of a democracy and market-based economy.

4. No National Growth Policy, Self-Defense Is Your Right

It’s a national market for housing and growth — and in some areas, international. As long as the Federal Government has no real effective growth policies — meaning where growth occurs — then every community has “the right of self-defense.” You could argue that the income tax deduction for mortgage interest and local real estate taxes and the every-two-years $250,000 capital gains exemption for sale of principal residence is a national growth policy, and that it encourages sprawl. Both are large subsidies for homeownership that generally increase with the more you buy. In decades past, the Federal Government subsidized and explicitly directed growth through transportation (canals, railroads, and highways), land grants and sales, and other subsidies to local governments.

Those days are gone. Some states are growing too fast while others have excess capacity. It is therefore arguable that the national government should do more to be aware of unanticipated consequences of the tax code and direct growth among the states and metro-areas? As long as Congress and the White House have laissez-faire growth policies, No Growth is an arguable smart move.
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Dr. Chris Williamson, AICP is a staff senior research associate at Solimar Research Group in Ventura, California.


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