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George Rebane: When again we grow …

Some day our economy will recover from the current waves of stimulus. When that day comes, people near and far will again look at Nevada County, and decide that they want to come here and become our neighbors. What kinds of living spaces will we build to attract and welcome them?

Before things got bad we talked of balanced communities, affordable housing, and smart growth. All of these required the intervention of the all-wise state to tell us what we could build where, and then how to live there after moving in. We were going to live like “Moonbeam” of Marin County shown years ago on TV ads where altruism reigned because, after all, we were one people.

In our county, the recent focus was in forcing new neighborhoods to include affordable housing – the government’s version of mandated low-priced housing – and nudging new developments into the form of “smart neighborhoods.”



Reports from politically correct institutions and agencies touted how smart growth would benefit both people and the environment. It was just the medicine needed to stop suburban sprawl, and shelter the enlightened folks who would be taught to reject separated houses on large lots, or worse, acreage.

But since then some water has passed under the bridge, and many people have taken a step back to examine compact development and smart growth in more depth and detail.




Randall O’Toole of the Cato and Thoreau Institutes summarized much of this research in several policy papers. The following points are abstracted from “The Myth of the Compact City – Why Compact Development Is Not the Way to Reduce Carbon Dioxide Emissions” (Cato Policy Analysis, No. 653, Nov. 18, 2009) and “The Folly of ‘Smart Growth'” (Cato Regulation Journal, Fall 2001).

The second paper summarizes Oregon’s smart-growth experience statewide and especially in the Portland area. For some reason, the media and activists promoting smart growth have not shared these experiences.

Let’s get to the main points.

• The prime objective of smart growth is to get unwilling people out of their cars.

• “There is no consensus among researchers about how much compact development would reduce driving, suggesting this is a highly risky proposition.”

• The collateral effects of compact developments distorted the expansion of rapid transit and inhibited the expansion/improvement of roads that resulted in higher congestion and pollution emissions.

• Smart-growth traffic calming designs converting traffic lanes into parking and bike lanes intended to induce congestion to get people out of cars and into rapid transit failed to meet driving reduction and per-capita-daily-miles goals.

• Dispersed compact development clusters are the least cost-effective way to reduce CO2 emissions. Compact development should be “among the last policies to be adopted in response to climate concerns.”

• “Portland’s ‘smart growth’ restrictions have changed one of the nation’s most affordable markets for single-family housing in 1989 to one of the least affordable since 1996.”

Space does not allow a more comprehensive summary of the experience with smart growth and compact development. The two major takeaways from the research are that compact developments go against the grain in how the overwhelming number of Americans want to live with their families. And to induce people into these tightly packed neighborhoods, special political stratagems have been adopted to give political cover to local politicians.

O’Toole reports that implementation is fostered by state agencies passing regulations that take the local electeds off the hook – “we have to do it, it’s a statewide requirement.”

Bottom line, the adherents of smart growth have had a political agenda that has consistently overstated the benefits, and underestimated the costs of such government coerced living quarters. A more complete history of government involvement in housing is in Howard Husock’s “America’s Trillion-Dollar Housing Mistake – The Failure of American Housing Policy.”

To implement an ideology, smart growth proponents have curtailed property rights, raised costs, increased traffic congestion, abridged liberties, reduced economic growth, and limited the supply of fairly priced housing units that people want.

When we welcome the next economic sunrise, let’s be careful not to let the clouds linger over Nevada County. As we rebuild an economically strong community, we should take another look at the old ideas that turned us toward “affordable housing” and “smart growth.” Real economic health has always been the sustainable basis of a community’s quality of life.

George Rebane is a retired systems scientist and entrepreneur in Nevada County who regularly expands these and other themes on KVMR and Rebane’s Ruminations (www.georgerebane.com).


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