"Population cap" raises questions | TheUnion.com

"Population cap" raises questions

Recently The Union addressed the issue of the so-called “population cap” of 150,000 imposed on our General Plan. There were a number of fears expressed in that article. Here are a few.

From The Union story:

Once the population reaches that number, no more building permits would be issued. The county would, essentially, be closed, property-rights advocates fear.

I have this vision of a populations-cap sheriff, the cap cop, patrolling Highway 49, suspiciously viewing an ’87 Ford coupe, crossing the county line with a U-Haul in tow. Flagging the car down he approaches the driver saying, “Just a minute there young fellow. Are you planning to move in here with that load of furniture and babies?” “Why yes, officer,” he replies. “What’s the problem?” “Well, my good man, we have a population cap in this county, and you are under arrest.”

The answer to fear of the unknown is education. There is no population cap. The county has no control over population, only zoning. It is a restriction placed on the zoning map. Let me explain.

During the 1995 General Plan update process, the county estimated that the proposed zoning map would generate a county population (including the cities) of about 150,000.

It was agreed that there was sufficient infrastructure to accommodate this population, and, after much negotiation, it was further agreed not to exceed this zoning density, hence we now have a cap on the buildout population. We have room for 150,000 people, and the zoning must continue to reflect that fact.

(There is much debate over how realistic the county’s figure is. Prof. Walker calculated a cap of 233,000. Unlike the county, he made no assumptions, only that each property owner would exercise his or her property right to develop to the extent allowed by the zoning. But I won’t go down that road here.)

Most important to understand is that the cap is a limit on parcelization, not on people. The county cannot legally amend the zoning in the General Plan in a manner that would increase the potential population.

Next, from The Union story:

Building permits would become a premium commodity, causing housing prices to dramatically increase, and a rush to the building department would ensue, said Pat Davison, the former field director for the pro-property rights organization, California Association of Business, Property, and Resource Owners, or CABPRO. This could create a situation similar to what has happened in Lake Tahoe(?)

We are a long way from buildout of the existing zoning map. At the present rate of population growth, it would take 40 years to complete the infill. And when that capacity nears we must decide if we wish go the route of Tahoe’s planning agency and restrain growth, or Roseville’s and expand to suit all comers.

Next, from The Union story:

“A lot of people have bought property (for investment) and you could affect those people. The county would have to seriously think about what that means,” said Barbara Bashall, executive director of the Nevada County Contractors Association.

There is no way the cap could affect the ability to sell or develop existing property; that investment is secure. The cap would affect only the ability to develop one’s property beyond the existing zoning, i.e. amend the General Plan.

The ability to go beyond the General Plan is of concern to developers, and this is what land speculation is all about. Personally, I would favor recalling any supervisor who felt it was his or her duty to protect land speculators and not those of us for whom speculation means a few bucks on the Raiders or 49ers.

Next, from The Union story:

To alleviate this problem, there needs to be more flexibility on zoning laws, and officials must recognize that the 1995 General Plan that includes the 150,000 population capacity is somewhat dated, said Supervisor John Spencer.

This assumes that 1995 Board of Supervisors (the Karen Knecht Board) didn’t really mean it when they said we should cap the zoning. They assumed that the next board would adjust this 150,000 cap as needed, infrastructure be damned.

What would have been the point of “flexibility on zoning?” Would it be the same as the philosophy of the perpetual dieter: Set a cap on caloric intake, and then fine-tune that cap as you get hungry.

And the unrecognized elephant in the room is the fact that the 150,000 cap assumes that the cities will maintain current county zoning in their annexations. But the county has little or no control over the growth in the coming annexations to Grass Valley. Be afraid.

What is the difference between a population cap and a cap on the zoning which defines the maximum population? It is profound. If it were a population cap, there would be no restriction on development until the population reached 150,000, perhaps 40 years from now. But, since the buildout population (i.e. the population potential) of the existing General Plan is already at (or greater than) 150,000, the constraint applies immediately.


Jim Hurley lives in Nevada City.

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