Cost of Growth

When it comes to real estate, I am Typhoid Mary.

When my folks moved to California, in the late forties, they settled in the San Fernando Valley.  At that time, the Valley was largely given over to the truck farms that supplied the Farmer’s Market in LA.  It was a quiet, not-quite-suburban backwater.

Within a couple of years, all that changed.  As if our arrival had been a trigger, thousands and then tens of thousands of people began to move in.  Traffic, air and quality of life deteriorated at about the same rate.  Pretty soon San Fernando was being written up in glowing articles declaring it, “The fastest growing city in the United States.”

A few years later, my father’s company decided to open a branch in a little town nobody had ever heard of — called Anaheim.  We moved there, and found a little town surrounded by mile after endless mile of orange groves.

Then along came Disneyland.  Suddenly everyone recognized what a wonderful place it was to live.  They couldn’t put in roads, sewers or traffic lights fast enough.  Within a few years, it had surpassed San Fernando and was being written up in admiring articles declaring it, “The fastest growing city in the United States.”

Beginning to see a pattern here?

Life in Orange County changed from Tom Sawyer to a sixties version of yuppie-dom.  Prosperity, population and pollution arrived.  When it finally came time for me to go to college, I deliberately picked a small school in a wide, beautiful agricultural area — called the Santa Clara  Valley.

By the time I got out of college, the Silicon Revolution was starting and the rolling hills around the Santa Clara Valley became home for lots of little start-up companies.  Why not?  The place was pastoral, uncrowded, and the land was cheap.

You guessed it.  It was not very long before the articles began to appear declaring it Silicon Valley and happily declaring it, “The fastest growing area in the country.”

Having had enough of this nonsense, I moved south to a little town in North San Diego county.

Now, as I look out and see the afternoon gridlock on our freeways and the infestation of little boxes breeding on the hillsides, it looks all too familiar.

How, I ask myself, do we keep getting ourselves into the same mess?  Why do we fail to learn from the experience of all of the areas that preceded us?  And what, oh what, can we do about it?

It will surprise no one, I suspect, to learn that I have a modest theory about it: The process is called addiction.  I don’t mean addiction to the chimera that Growth Is Good.  Something a little less direct.

It goes like this: Some city or county council wants to spend some money on worthy projects like adding a stop signal in front of city hall or landscaping the roadsides or getting new clocks for their offices.  Through sheer wooly-mindedness and not understanding the need, their constituents stubbornly refuse to approve the taxes to fund these obviously necessary expenditures.

Along comes some developer hot after a building permit or a zoning change to add umpty-hundred new, “luxury estates” ranch style houses to that old tract of land outside of town.  Granting this request will add umteen thousand dollars of un-voted money to the coffers.

The temptation is too much: they geek.

Everything goes swimmingly until sometime later when they notice that all those new people have added so much traffic that a couple of more traffic signals are needed to cope.  And their cars are beating the heck out of the old road, so it should really be re-surfaced.  Then too, the sewers on that side of town are really stretched to the limit.  One good storm and…

So the council needs money — again — and the cheapskate citizens, including the new folks with their nice, shiny, new mortgages, — again — don’t want to tax themselves to pay for it all.

The along comes this developer, you see, who offers them umpteen thousand in permits to develop that tract…

Point, here, is that they now need money from today’s developer to pay for consequences of  yesterday’s development.  They are behind the curve.  And since this next development will, in its turn, increase the load on all services, they will stay behind the curve.

They are hooked.

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A small digression:

It has been suggested that if we really faced how much it cost to build a car, we would not be able to afford them.  Just think, each pound of steel, copper or aluminum not only is mined and refined at some price, it also leaves its legacy of mine tailings and contaminated groundwater and polluted air that we will have to pay for at a later date.  Not to mention that we are using up reserves of resources in the process that have a value in terms of national (or international) wealth.  For the non-renewable kinds, we are making our world a slightly poorer place with each car.

Add to this all the plastic parts, air bag charges, petrochemical fluids, etc., etc.  Each has a hidden cost of production that we are leaving for the future to clean up.

Add to that the impact of the life cycle usage of tires, gas, oil, batteries, etc. that the car will consume over its life.  Each taps resources and leaves an expensive clean-up problem.

And then add to that the real cost of recycling the car.  Not just trying to recover the metal, which it could be argued helps pay for itself, but all the items we simply have to pay to dispose of (usually that means bury), like the seat padding, old carpets, and materials too mixed to be economically separated, etc.  And don’t let’s forget all those old tires we can’t seem to use for anything but breeding mosquitos.

All of these could have a costs assigned to them.  In fact, the exercise has been done, at least in a rudimentary fashion.  The calculation shows that adding in the true costs would more than double the cost of each car.

[You may wonder why this figure is not included in the sticker on a new car.  The car makers say that people couldn’t afford to pay that much.

Lemme see now.  We are going to have to pay this anyway, but if we knew about it, we couldn’t afford it.  Why does that argument make my head hurt?]

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Back to the old building permit game.

Each new person imposes a predictable load on the power grid which will eventually have to be strengthened to carry the load.  Likewise to the sewer system, water and power, flood channels and other allocated services.  Each new foot of new residential street carries a predictable maintenance load.

Each new family will add a predictable fraction of a child to the school system, will require some amount of additional parks and recreation services, etc.

Each new house, with its two car garage, will add some load to the city and county streets, traffic control, freeway load, etc.  Each vehicle will impose some level of wear and tear on all of the above that will have to be repaired.  Each vehicle consumes some percentage of the road network’s capacity, implying a gradual need to build more roads, freeways and the like.  Even though we are talking about California, public transportation will also see an increase in load.

With a little work and a little math, could have a set of figures (properly indexed for area and price of dwellings) available that would predict the additional cost of any development on a one, five, ten, etc., year basis.

The biggest problem with uncontrolled growth on the California model (ignoring degradation in lifestyle — which would require a whole separate column) is that growth is completely divorced from a region’s facilities capacity to carry the load.  Whatever our nominal goal, our pattern is to build until the roads are a nightmare, our freeways grid locked and every other public resource is groaning or actively breaking under the strain.  Only when a region becomes so crippled as to be unattractive (and, paradoxically, too expensive) do we see growth slow.

But suppose, just suppose, that two things happened:

1) That those bold council members were required to do a real cost analysis on any new proposal.  Suppose they saw that the development that promises $100,000 in fees and taxes will add a $250,000 in increased service load over the next ten years.  What do you think would happen?

2) That there were actually laws on the books that prohibited granting of permits until a plan was in place to increase all services to cope with the increased load.  How burdensome (not to mention how fast) would growth be then?

Point is that all our actions have consequences.  When we can anticipate the consequences, we should be required to do so.

Accepting responsibility is coming back in fashion and the falling crime statistics reflect that fact.  That is good.  But I would like to suggest that we also need to expand the idea of accepting responsibility for our own actions to cover areas where now we just throw up our arms and say it is nobody’s fault.

It is ours.

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