Sunday, September 30, 2007

Who's being "responsible"?

There's a new group in the county, the "Amador Citizens for Responsible Government." Sounds good, right? Who's opposed to responsible government?

But like many things, what sounds good may not hold up to closer scrutiny. This particular group's thoughts on what constitutes responsible government are pretty questionable.

The group opposes efforts to combat global warming, which it calls a "scientifically-discredited theory." They recently convinced the Amador County Board of Supervisors not to sign on to a national "Cool County" resolution pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Apparently, these "responsible" guys (19 of their 20 "Executive Council" members are guys) think they know more about climate science than the the Nobel Peace Prize committee and major world scientific institutions.

They've shown up at recent meetings of the Amador County General Plan Advisory Committee to oppose consideration of global warming in the update of the county general plan -- even after the county's consultant described how the state is suing counties that fail to take global warming into account.

Is that responsible? I don't think so. Failing to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions could result in serious consequences for this and future generations. That doesn't sound responsible to me. It sounds selfish and short-sighted, especially when common sense solutions exist.

If our county disregards global warming-related state law, it leaves itself open to lawsuits. Is that responsible? Last time I checked, our county didn't have money to waste on lawsuits that can easily be avoided. I know I don't want my tax dollars spent that way.

This group also opposes smart growth planning principles, which center around building denser, walkable communities where services and infrastructure are available -- much like the small towns we love in our county now.

Providing government services and infrastructure to compact development is much cheaper than serving homes spread all over the rural countryside. It is easier to protect homes from wildland fire. It costs less to maintain roads.

Compact development reduces the need for new school construction, school buses, new roads, new sewer facilities, water lines, fire stations, and more. It ensures that natural areas will continue to provide "ecological services" such as clean water and clean air. It supports our tourism economy by keeping the county beautiful and rural. It keeps our working landscapes contributing to the local culture and economy.

Smart growth can be cheaper for builders, too, because they don't need to provide the infrastructure to sprawling homes.

So it's hard to see how opposing smart growth constitutes "responsible government."

The group is also opposed to the new Amador Regional Planning Committee -- a group formed to help ensure better coordination of land use planning among our five cities and the county. The committee has no regulatory authority. Absolutely none.

But this new group somehow sees it as a threat, and therefore supports continuing our current system, where coordination of planning efforts is spotty, at best -- with the obvious consequences we're seeing in our county today.

Responsible? I think not.

So what is this group for? They say they're for "limited government." But best I can tell, they're really for unfettered growth of the type that threatens our natural environment and quality of life -- the kind of growth we've seen turn much of rural California into sprawling, undifferentiated suburbs. They want that sort of growth here, too, regardless of the cost.

And if you ask me, that is anything but responsible.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Jackson does need help, but not Jackson Hills

It looks like Jackson's City Council will complete the approval of the Jackson Hills project on Monday night, September 10. Some locals think the city council members have been "bought off" by the developers.

I don't. I think it's more likely that the council members feel like they have to do something to address the challenges facing Jackson today: a distressed downtown, the loss of sales tax-generating businesses to the county, and the need to develop wastewater disposal alternatives.

The council is approving Jackson Hills because it's been sold to them as the solution to these problems. And they've bought the package, despite the many questions that surround it.

It's an easy fix, right? Approve one subdivision and all of Jackson's problems will go away. Problem is, closer scrutiny shows that Jackson Hills is not the solution, and before long, the city will have the same problems it had before, compounded by the problems that come with Jackson Hills, including gridlock in the south part of town.

There are other options.

Let's take downtown first. Years ago, when the county government was based in Jackson, county workers went downtown to shop at lunch and after work (I worked briefly in the courthouse, so saw and did this myself). When the government center moved out to Argonaut Heights, the downtown merchants lost that business. Now that the county workers are back on Court Street, has anyone tried to lure them back downtown?

Let's see -- why would county workers -- or Sutter Amador Hospital employees -- shop in Jackson? Maybe if there were free shuttles at lunch time. Maybe if it were easy to grab a loaner bike at the workplace and pedal into town for a sandwich without risking your life in the process. Maybe if there were actually something to buy. Remember, Jackson used to have many businesses that catered primarily to local residents and people working nearby.

Perhaps local business owners need to look at the local market again. The city could help by funding some market research and making it available for free to local businesses, working with the two big employers in town, and going back to some of the good plans developed for downtown in the past that are now gathering dust on someone's shelf. A little economic gardening could go a long way.

Also, I've always thought that any big shopping center with a shady parking lot could do a lot more business in summer than those with acres upon acres of unshaded asphalt. Given the choice of shopping at a store with cool parking or one without, I know which one I'd pick on a hot summer day. Urban forest grants could green up Jackson's shopping center lots for those who aren't going to go downtown and make them more competitive with the businesses in Mart-hell.

The sales tax loss is a hard problem to solve. Jackson always had unusually high sales tax revenue, thanks to its car dealerships. One could see how big a problem that loss was going to be years ago when the county decided to create the Mario Biagi Sales Tax Sacrifice Zone in Martell.

Home Depot is trying to sell itself as the solution to this problem, while proposing to build in the historic viewshed below the Kennedy Mine. Surely there are other ways to help Jackson renew its business base.

Wastewater disposal is the third big challenge. Spraying treated wastewater on local ranch lands is one good solution. And unlike a golf course, irrigated cattle pastures don't come with 580 houses and nearly 6,000 car trips a day.

As Jackson works on long-term wastewater solutions, the city could immediately reduce its wastewater volume by conducting water audits for every household to identify water-wasting practices. It could also subsidize the purchase of low-flush toilets and modern, water-saving clothes washers.

A new washing machine of the right type uses only 35%-50% as much water as older models -- that's water going into the wastewater system today. Everyone wins -- the homeowner spends less on water and power and the city has less wastewater to treat. The city would save money, too. Muncipal wastewater treatment requires a great deal of electricity.

Just as there is no free lunch, there is no simple solution for Jackson's problems. But there are alternatives to a big, environmentally destructive, dumb-growth subdivision that threatens the operation of local ranches. I've name just a few here. I'm sure others could be developed with some concerted effort and creativity.

Real leadership for Jackson means moving ahead with that effort. And it means standing up and taking on these challenges with a view to long-term consequences, not opting for the easy short-term fix -- especially one as suspect as Jackson Hills.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Property rights are not a blank check

Our community is full of independent people who want control over their lives and their land. That's a good thing, as far as I'm concerned.

But then there are those who raise the issue of "property rights" every time a land use policy comes along that they don't like -- or when the question of community rights is raised to challenge a subdivision or big-box store or other project that doesn't fit the community, causes gridlock, creates air pollution, destroys habitat, or otherwise creates problems for other people.

There are many misconceptions about property rights. But the truth is, local governments -- that is, our duly elected representatives -- have broad powers to determine what is best for the community and through that process, to control local land use. Those powers include telling people how they can develop and use their property.

Although individuals may have their own definitions of property rights, the courts have in fact defined property rights and "takings" for us. For a good explanation of how it all works, see this handbook from LandWatch Monterey County.