Saturday, March 31, 2007

Lipstick on a pig

Some of the quaint sayings I remember from growing up in North Carolina are coming back to me lately. Here's one that seems to apply with increasing frequency: "It's like putting lipstick on a pig."

What that means, of course, is that however one might gussy up a pig, underneath the layers of makeup, fancy clothing, and jewelry, it's still a pig.

So how does this apply to things local? Well, think about the new sign proposed for Sutter Hill(see March 19 post and Sutter Creek planning documents). It's a crass, urban LCD advertising sign with Gold Rush features stuck on to make it "fit" and some revenue bones thrown to the Knight Foundry to make it harder to reject.

Or take the various big subdivisions proposed in the last couple of years. They're large lot, dumb-growth suburban projects that take out huge numbers of oak trees, chop up the landscape, and because everyone who will live in them must drive to do anything, will cause near-gridlock conditions on local roads. They're not designed to meet local housing needs or address state growth issues, but to attract affluent people who already have perfectly nice homes somewhere else.

But the developers are busy applying lipstick to these projects, hoping no one will notice what's underneath. They seem to believe that "amenities" like hiking trails, token parks, some money for schools, unbuildable land for "open space," and maybe a few low-wage jobs will be enough to help locals grow blind to the projects' shortcomings.

I think we still see better than that. At least I hope we do.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

A bit about property rights

The question of property rights comes up at nearly every meeting of the Amador County General Plan Advisory Committee. As you might imagine, the discussion is highly subjective.

Because of that, I recently suggested that the county counsel come speak to the committee and the public about what property rights are and aren't, and what can legally be done through the general plan and zoning. Maybe we'll see that happen before too long.

Meanwhile, I remembered having read a really good paper on the issue. Donald Rypkema, who calls himself a "crass, unrepentant, real estate capitalist Republican type," spoke on the matter a few years back at the National Building Museum. Rypkema's lecture, "Property Rights and Public Values," gives some historical context, addresses the "takings" issue, and discusses many of the misconceptions people have about property rights.

It's well worth a read.

Friday, March 23, 2007

A plan does not a project make

The state's recent rejection of San Joaquin County's water rights application for the Mokelumne River is a good reminder of this simple fact: until it’s approved and built, a plan for a water project is only that — a plan.

This is especially important to remember as we plan for our county's future. The recently developed regional Integrated Water Management Plan includes a long list of water and wastewater projects, some of which are highly speculative.

Some of the projects in the IRWMP are as likely to fail as succeed. They may be too expensive. They may damage the environment too much. There may not be enough water in the rivers for them or enough land suitable for wastewater disposal. Or people may just find them unacceptable.

On Thursday night, Jim Abercrombie, general manager of the Amador Water Agency, told the Amador County General Plan Advisory Committee that water "will not be a limiting factor in the life" of the new general plan.

Now Jim may have meant: we have plenty of water to supply growth for the next 20 years -- which is true. We can add at least 30,000 to 40,000 people to our county's population based on current water supplies, even without water conservation, efficiency, or reuse programs.

However, what Jim said may have been interpreted as meaning that we can have unlimited growth, which is obviously not the case.

It all depends on whether we plan based on existing water sources or count on speculative projects that may never be built. Considering San Joaquin County's recent experience, as well as Amador County's failed Devil's Nose Project of the 1990s, we'd do well to focus on what is real today.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Of signs and such

Some folks are finding it hard to locate Sutter Creek since the construction of the Highway 49 bypass. Until good signs are in place, it's fairly easy to zip right by. This is of obvious concern to the merchants who rely on tourist traffic for a living.

The city's planning to put up some entry signs, but another idea has surfaced lately: a big, three-sided sign, complete with an ad-bearing video screen on each side, to be located at Sutter Hill. It's got a few Gold Country features -- large timbers, some rock, a Knight wheel -- but from the first time I saw the renderings the other night, I just knew it was all wrong for Sutter Creek.

I don't know about you, but something tells me that tourists don't come here for video ads, even when those ads are shown on a pseudo-Gold Country base and interspersed with pictures of downtown. If I were headed to a historic town for a visit, I'd certainly think twice if its gateway featured video ads for the local car dealer and casino. Let's hope the city and business owners find a more suitable way to direct tourist traffic to town.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Planning for youth

In his recent editorial, Amador Ledger Dispatch Editor Raheem Hosseini pointed out that Amador County communities have largely done a poor job of engaging youth and providing things for them to do.

Maybe that’s due in part to our county’s agricultural roots. On farms and ranches, kids don’t need youth or recreation centers, sports fields, or other urban-suburban amenities to keep them occupied. They have chores to do, greater responsibilities to assume as they mature,
4-H and Future Farmers of America to teach them social and leadership skills, and plenty of places to get outside and have fun. Who needs a skateboard when you can indulge a need for speed on horseback?

Leaders who grew up in a rural, agricultural setting may have difficulty understanding why some people think Amador County needs
more facilities and opportunities for youth. It’s not that they’ve been sticking their heads in the sand, but rather that the concept is simply outside their experience.

But the fact is, most local kids don’t live on farms and ranches anymore, and paying more attention to their needs is long overdue.

I’ve always been amazed that there are youth centers in Calaveras County’s small communities, including West Point and Mountain Ranch. If they can do it, certainly we can, too. And we should.

What’s happening with that empty Safeway building in Jackson, anyway? Seems ideal: a big building, right in town, with a large parking lot for a skate park. All it needs is a champion and some visionary leadership.

If we can have a Senior Foundation, why not a Youth Foundation?

Maybe Raheem could serve on the board.