The Fringe 10/24/12

Convince Me

Your Fringe Editor often gets responses on opinion pieces, but the most recent piece on Plumas Sierra Citizen’s Alliance for Property Rights’ single family home ordinance and High Sierra Rural Alliance’s plea for people not to sign the petition got a lot of feedback.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Unfortunately the feedback must have been personal conversations with The Fringe as there was no feedback to the sierracountyprospect.org . If there had been I would publish it as comments, so we would all have the opportunity of other readers opinions.)

Most was supportive, but some accused me of anachronistic, retrograde views on land use.  One Dear Friend used language which cast doubt on my parents’ marriage and even my poor mother’s species.  My reply was that I could be convinced I’m wrong.  It’s just that HSRA hasn’t convinced me.

To be very clear, this issue is about philosophy.  HSRA and others have a philosophy which supports having the landowner bear the cost of social engineering of population densities.  CAPR and others feel a landowner should have the right to build a house, if the lot is otherwise appropriate.  To be convinced against the single family home ordinance I would have to have compelling evidence that the county will be harmed more in 20 years by the ordinance than it is being harmed now under the current philosophy.

In short, excepting that all land use regulations place a burden on the landowner and negatively impact the freedom to use the land as a resource, does the current system unfairly impact the simple right to put a house on land you own?  The change being made is, after all, a fairly minor adjustment in the balance between the needs of the community and the rights of the individual.

To be convinced that the current code philosophy is worth preserving I needed to explore three things:

  1. The impact of the ordinance on development, over the next twenty years;
  2. The validity of the “community core” argument;

3  The ultimate impact on the environment.

To assess the likely impact on development, I again returned to Sierra County Code, and to the GIS website.  See the website and all the useful data yourself, HERE http://demos2.calcad.com:8080/SierraCountyPublic/fusion.php

I read again the impact of a conditional use permit, a special use permit, and ministerial permits for single family homes in the various county zones.   My consideration included the requirements of CEQA as written, though perhaps not as the courts have sometimes decided on it.  To be clear, my analysis was hindered by three things: 1. I am not an expert on planning or planning law; 2.the code is not clear regardless, or perhaps because of, its attempt at specificity; 3. the manifest policies of the planning department provide a localized procedure, and there are many places where discretion lies with the department head or staff to make essential decisions.  Even so, I have, I think, identified where the philosophical divide lies on whether the initiative will “ruin” the county.

Several things become clear.  First of all, the Lakes Basin will not become Lake Tahoe during the next 20 years, and probably never.  This is for more reasons than the subject deserves to have described, but include the lack of major highways, contemporary environmental standards, land ownership patterns, and current zoning which will not be significantly altered by the proposed ordinance.

Indeed, there might not be that many parcels affected; there likely will be no housing boom based on this ordinance.

The next clear thing is that those with TPZ land will have their legal rights to a house restored.

The next obvious thing is that the ordinance will jimmy some “community core” ordinances.

The validity of the “community core” philosophy in land use planning is the carbon footprint argument.  Here is writer and urbanofile Edward Glaeser on urban greenness:  “…people who live in cities do tend to emit significantly less carbon than people who live in the country, and this is controlling for income and controlling for family size. That’s coming mainly from driving, from the fact that there are just a lot fewer carbon emissions associated with dense living. It’s not just the move to public transportation; it’s also the drivers within cities — they’re just driving much shorter distances. And then, of course, it’s because of much smaller homes.” From an article Freakanomics.com

We’ll pause to note that The Triumph of the City author Glaeser, himself lives on just over six acres in an affluent Massachusetts suburb, surrounded by 600 acres of land under a conservation easement.  That alone puts his argument to rest in my mind.

Even so, I have written before on the impact of living rurally; for example here. http://www.sierracountyprospect.com/Podunk_Wars.html .  Knowing that, am I willing to allow scattered growth on private parcels in the county?  I am, and here’s why.

  1. Sierra County has significant geologic barriers to growth.  We easily could and no doubt one day will have a large population center in the county, but it’s going to be Verdi or maybe Sierraville long before it will occur in the mountains.
  2. Carbon footprint itself is one limiting factor: motor fuel costs money.  It costs more to live in the mountains, whether you burn wood or oil for heat.  The behaviors which result in a higher carbon footprint are self-limiting.  Only the wealthy or the doggedly determined can live in a really rural environment.
  3. These pressures alone are sufficient to encourage growth in “community core” areas and not in the more sparsely populated areas.

It will be more than 20 years before the pressures on the most sensitive areas are sufficient to encourage large-scale development.

The “community core” idea itself is more dogma than science.  A community core is, or likely will be, an area of growth, and eventually, a city.  Cities are not only unpleasant (which is why Glaeser lives in rural suburban Mass) they export their carbon footprint to rural areas.  They eat food that is trucked, use water that is often stolen from rural mountains, they flush their bodily filth into huge toxic sewer systems and most often send their solid waste out to the hinterlands.  Urban dwellers often recreate in the country and they often do this by driving some place and then driving a snow mobile or quad or dirt bike.  Community cores, most of all, are not organically rural, they are something formed by market forces and bad land use planning.

I’ll propose an ideal population density for Sierra County similar to that of Vermont.  See below.

Vermont. Created from Census Bureau data and made available on Wikipedia

People who want to live really rurally, meaning where there are at least fifty acres between you and your neighbors, shouldn’t be penalized by someone else’s religion, even if that religion is environmentalism.

Which brings me to the third area of concern, the environment.  The discussion is clouded by a discussion which is rich with mis-applied science and bald of actual facts.  Conditional use permits and special use permits are required more for reasons of social organization (not putting a residential area in the middle of a heavy industrial area) or philosophy (not letting people build anywhere near a river or stream) than to actually protect the environment.

The truth is, it is against federal and state laws to damage, for example, a wetland or a meadow.  Gross harm to the environment can still be prevented or mitigated without a conditional use for a permanent structure.  County staff could not issue a building permit that violated those laws which trump Sierra County ordinances.  It will be harder for those outside the county to comment on houses built in those zones.  God save the landowner, for example, who wants to do something in a scenic highway corridor, and yet, houses can and should be allowed there.

I disagree that significant damage will be done to the environment, beyond the impact all human activity has.  I think landowners will be responsible, and county employees will follow state and local laws.

Nothing I’ve discovered has convinced me the ordinance is a bad idea.  If something compelling comes forward, perhaps the proposed ordinance can be modified to accommodate the new information.

There are those who feel we should push the police powers, the “imminent domain” powers, of the state further and use zoning laws to make unreasonable demands on landowners.  I’ll suggest this again: if you want nothing done with land, buy it, and do nothing with it.  But don’t saddle landowners with your philosophy.  The process of building a house here has gotten more and more twisted in definitions and minutiae.  I think twenty more years of this will strangle the county.

Until stronger evidence comes forward, I’ll support this very slightly pro-growth change, because the freedom restored to the landowner to build her or himself a home is more important than the theoretical and philosophical beliefs of people who don’t own the land.

Let’s see if the voters agree.

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