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Blaming Growth Won’t Solve Troubles

<i> Larry M. Bagley is the mayor of Oceanside and is up for reelection this year. </i>

Three out of four residents of the San Diego region now perceive the rate of growth as being either a threat to or causing a lessening of the quality of life. Growth will therefore be the major focus of local election campaigns this year. Each candidate will use some of the favorite buzz words or phrases in suggesting how he or she will solve the problem.

Unfortunately, most of these candidates will be more interested in seeking office than in seeking solutions. They will use such phrases as “growth management” or “controlled growth” without having the faintest idea as to how they will “control” or “manage” the inevitable growth. The simplistic approach is to deal with the symptoms of growth as though they were the causes. The most apparent of these symptoms, of course, is residential construction.

Each home that is built contributes to the problems of growth, thus creating the impression that each home is a direct cause.

A 1987 report by the San Diego Assn. of Governments (Sandag), attempts to identify the true causes of growth in our region, and analyzes the possible methods of control. The report’s conclusions are clear and irrefutable. They are also going to be ignored in all the rhetoric of an election year.

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In plain terms, we have “suffered” an unprecedented rate of growth because we have enjoyed an equally unprecedented healthy economy.

More than half of the new people in our area have come because of jobs created within our basic industries. It is therefore apparent that if we want policies that will materially affect our rate of growth, they will have to be directed at slowing our economic growth.

Such policies, of course, will also increase unemployment and decrease per capita income, and have little political appeal. Since the Sandag report is definite in its conclusion that attempting to control growth by only controlling residential construction is ineffective, it is apparent that councils, boards and candidates opting for this type of control are either unwilling to make the much tougher political decisions or are unwilling to deal with more than the superficial symptoms of growth.

Aside from the fact that much of the force behind our explosive growth in Southern California is directly related to our having a healthier economy than the nation as a whole is the reality that the world population is booming. The United States has more than double the population it had five decades ago, California has doubled in the last three decades. The birth rate in San Diego County accounts for 37% of our population increase each year.

If we accept that the primary causes of our explosive rate of growth during this past five years are directly related to a healthy economy and an equally healthy family life, it is safe to assume that our politicians will not openly advocate restrictions on either activity. The rhetoric and promises will therefore continue to be for limitations on the production of housing units.

The real danger in such a single-faceted approach is not that it will be ineffective, but that it will be counter-productive.

Since the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, local governments’ ability to finance capital improvements have been drastically reduced. The alternative chosen throughout the state has been to impose development fees, which have grown so large that in some areas these fees can be as much as 20% of the cost of building a home.

Cities have now become virtually dependent upon these fees for the construction of roads, schools, parks, sewerage facilities, water facilities and major drainage structures. A reduction in housing construction means a reduction in the construction of these new facilities. The financial implications of this are further complicated by the inevitable legal costs entailed in regulatory measures that raise constitutional issues pertaining to property rights. These costs are not insignificant.

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In our own city, we are defending a dozen lawsuits resulting from an initiative that limits the number of residential building permits we can issue. These lawsuits total close to $100 million. The legal costs in these defenses have already cost several hundred thousands of dollars, and will eventually be more than a million dollars. These costs, since they came from the general fund, will affect the operations of each city department, not just capital improvements.

In all of the political discussions surrounding growth, we seem to disregard the positive contribution that growth has made toward improving our quality of life. Many of us remember the relative tranquility of a few years ago with its lack of traffic problems and the unmarred rolling hills. Some of us also remember widespread unemployment and a lack of shopping and cultural facilities.

The necessity to travel long distances to give us some freedom of choice in purchases and entertainment quite often entailed bumper-to-bumper traffic on two-lane state highways. Looking for organized and competitive activities for our children was severely limited. We remember being dependent on wells in the San Luis Rey Valley for water that often changed taste with every glassful. Higher education facilities were not available. In raising a family, we usually recognized that employment opportunities for our youth after graduation usually meant their moving out of the area.

We should also recognize that the influx of new people in the area has provided us with talents and abilities.

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Accepting the benefits of growth does not necessarily mean accepting all the potential detriments, however.

The main detrimental effects as we perceive them are, essentially, the inability of basic services and facilities to respond to increased demands, and the destruction of environmental assets as a by-product of growth. This is where the city councils and the Board of Supervisors must accept responsibility. While actions in approving developments may not be the direct cause of growth, they are the cause of many of the detrimental effects.

There are many projects that should never have been approved; there are many more that should not have been approved with the densities proposed. And perhaps the greatest fault of our regulatory agencies has been in granting approvals based on future roads and facilities, which will only be built long after the need created by such approvals will exist.

What we are going to do to resolve some of the growth issues is certainly a legitimate issue to be addressed in the coming elections. The Sandag study points out that much of our recent economic expansion has been within the defense industry, and this rate of growth is rapidly declining. This and other factors point to a reduced rate of population increase.

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If we can accept this as a reasonable expectation, then it would appear that our main efforts in the near future should be in catching up on our public facilities, and an increased commitment to the preservation of open space, particularly in environmentally sensitive areas. General plans within our cities should be refined and honored. Regional plans dealing with regional issues must be given some hope of implementation by our several local government agencies. Discrimination (in its positive sense) must be exercised in future approvals of projects.

We can, with effort, reduce the negative impacts of growth and at the same time enhance the positive aspects if we honestly recognize the difference between cause and effect, and work to cure the detrimental effects.


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