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Obstruction or Opportunity? Environmentalists Sue to Stop Roads

Editor’s Note: Mark wrote this article a few years ago, however, it has relevance today as SACOG moves toward adoption of the new MTP for the Sacramento Region.

Environmentalists recently filed suit to stop some of Sacramento’s federally funded highway projects. The precedent for this was a case that brought Atlanta’s federally funded road construction to a halt because the road improvements would make enough traffic to break Federal clean air regulations. Predictably, business groups and the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) who requested these projects are outraged, portraying their environmentalist opponents at best as obstructionists.

But is this really just obstruction? Having sat on one of the Planning Advisory Councils that helped make Sacramento County’s land use policy, I’ve seen seen how developers and politicians discourage the alternatives to the kind of development that requires all trips be made in a car. The lawsuit “obstruction” may the only way we have to ensure the Sacramento Valley does not become a north-state version of the congestion-plagued, smog-filled Los Angeles basin.

Current development practices offer enormous subsidies to those who build in outlying areas. (Outlying development requires long, unproductive, polluting commutes.) If they have enough political clout, developers can get Cities and Counties to “upzone” agricultural land purchased at $2,000 an acre, making this commercial/industrial/residential land worth $40,000 an acre. They can do this even if that land is godforsaken flood plain surrounded by weak levees. With profits like these, developers can even afford to build a constituency clamoring for the upzone by purchasing a sports franchise.

Furthermore, building fees are the same for infill and greenfield (outlying) development, despite their real difference in costs to cities and counties. The Mello-Roos bonds that are supposed to pay for the extra infrastructure required by greenfield development remain inadequate. North Natomas, for example, is only paying 90% of its school costs with the these bonds, so the rest of Sacramento City’s schools will have to suffer, making up the difference.

Our Planning Advisory Council lobbied to have the County’s General plan include traffic-reducing Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) guidelines. TODs revise public works and planning standards so development would return to pre-1950’s neighborhood designs, mixing residences with offices and commerce, among other things. After our then-Supervisor, Grantland Johnson, helped ensure these guidelines were in the County’s General Plan, we believed the Supervisors would reject a large (non-TOD) sprawl development, unanimously turned down by our Advisory Council and County planning staff. We were naive enough to be confident the Supervisors would reject sprawl even though the builder proposing this development, was the president of the influential California Building Industry Association.

What happened? The Supervisors, led by Grantland Johnson, folded like a cheap suit, and let them build the sprawl. The builder began his subdivision, failed to sell the homes and died. Meanwhile, Supervisor Johnson was praised by the Sacramento Bee as an “enlightened planner,” and moved on to a succession of lucrative political appointments, with salaries near the inflation-adjusted equivalent of thirty pieces of silver.

We know transit-friendly development would eliminate some of the reliance on the pollution-producing practice of solo motoring, but our public policies effectively say we want to keep driving at all costs. The World Resource Institute estimates that, not counting the effects of pollution, we subsidize petroleum to the tune of $300 billion annually with tax breaks like the depletion allowance. It’s as though we offer everyone money to get in their car and drive, while charging for transit. Add to this the sheer inconvenience of transit in suburbia—a place designed so you must make every trip of any significance in an auto—and you have a recipe for continued reliance on cars for just about all access to work, shopping, school and home.

For real, working transit, we must also build densely enough to provide riders and destinations within a walk of the transit stops. To work, studies tell us this need only be medium density (13 units per acre—a little more than duplexes). Yet we continue to effectively subsidize very low densities in outlying neighborhoods, and offer meager, if any, financial encouragement to build these medium densities as infill.

Sadly, even California’s tax code conspires to keep us driving. Sales taxes from big box retail—one of the last, best sources of discretionary revenue for local government—comes from these stores’ ability to attract consumers in cars. Cities and counties approve more of such retail than they really need because they are desperate for revenue. They even approve such big boxes to the detriment of local merchants.

Finally, bad information or no information dominates most people’s discussion of these issues. Even the Sacramento Bee recently published crime statistics showing higher crime in center-city neighborhoods than in the suburbs. What they neglected to publish were the per-capita crime statistics, which tell a far different story. Per-capita, densely-developed New York City has a lower crime rate than Phoenix Arizona, dominated by low-density suburbs. Nevertheless, people consistently cite crime as one of the reasons to shun density.

So while the conventional wisdom is that “It takes a village to raise a child.” Unfortunately, now it takes a lawsuit to be able to build a village.

Mark Dempsey is a former Realtor and former vice-chairman of a Community Planning Advisory Council in Sacramento County.

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