Anti-Growth or Pro-Community? Salem's Mayor Makes His Case by Mike Swaim
It’s time for some straight talk about growth. To put it bluntly: Are we growing better, or just getting bigger?
Just what does growth do for us? Eben Fodor, in his excellent and thought-provoking book Better, Not Bigger, asks the telling questions:
• “How much more congestion would you like in your community?” • “How much more air and water pollution would you prefer?” • “How much more farmland and open space do you want to be developed?” • “How much higher do you want your taxes to go?” • “How much more of your local natural resources (fresh water, electric power supply, forests, aggregate and minerals) do you want consumed?” • “Would you prefer that your city government continue to subsidize new development, or should it use the money to fund schools, extend library hours, offer daycare at community centers, create cultural and recreational programs, and still have enough left over for a tax cut?” And the bottom line question: • “How much bigger do you want your community to be?”
Intelligent Growth or Urban Sprawl The growth industry argues that if we impose growth controls, or impede the growth momentum in any fashion, it will drive up housing costs, make home ownership unaffordable except to the wealthy, and deprive local citizens of needed jobs. No certifiably sane mayor wants to be responsible for such consequences—might just as well put a noose around my neck and jump off the horse right now.
But is the growth industry correct? Do we really have to accept more congestion, pollution, and tax subsidies while losing open space, natural resources, and funding for youth recreational programs? I don’t think so.
In speaking to the Salem City Club last year, Governor John Kitzhaber said, “Oregonians really dislike two things: they dislike sprawl; and they dislike density.” He’s correct, but we’re not getting the essential message, which is: “Oregonians pretty much like what we have, and want us to preserve as much of it as possible.” People are sincerely concerned about losing their present quality of life—whether through sprawl or density—and are becoming genuinely alarmed about it. When elected officials fail to understand this, many voters suggest that, though the wheel may be turning, the hamster is dead.
Insanity is sometimes defined as doing the same exact thing over and over again, and expecting a different result. If we hope to avoid the insanity of a life like Los Angeles, we’ve got to quit doing things the way Los Angeles did. The first order of business is to change the mind-set drummed into us by the growth industry, and all too many urban planners, that “growth is inevitable and there ain’t much we can do about it, other than to accommodate it.” It just isn’t so.
We also have to quit deluding ourselves into believing that Oregon’s present land use laws are going to save us from endless sprawl. If you look closely at those laws, and especially the develop-ment that has actually been allowed under those laws, it is clear that while we might be creating our sprawl more efficiently than LA did, it is sprawl nonetheless, and in 50 years (or maybe a lot less, if the economy remains strong) we will be indistinguishable from our neighbors to the south, except for the Spanish moss in our oak trees. Quite frankly, we deserve better.
Elected officials, and the professional urban planners who advise us, have largely failed to heed the public’s message, which has spawned a string of several dozen successful local ballot initiatives, some passing with more than 70% approval, that mandate voter consideration of all proposed annexations. The handwriting is on the wall: People want to get control over growth in their communities; and if the politicians won’t do it, the people will take matters into their own hands, just as they did with tax reform.
If elected officials are to keep the faith with the ever-widening majority of our voters on the growth issue, we must act now to slow down, if not stop, growth in those communities that feel that they have had enough, already. People are beginning to understand that the nature and quality of their lives are on the brink of irreversible damage.
Let me hasten to add that there are also communities in Oregon which don’t want to slow down growth, but, in fact want to speed it up, if possible. They feel that their particular communities have not yet reached an optimum balance of size and acceptable impact. This is an important point, and perfectly legitimate. As is often the case, one size does not fit all. I am not here to argue that every town should stop growth in its tracks. Each community must decide for itself how much growth, annually and ultimately, is healthy for that community.
Thus, my comments are directed primarily to communities such as Salem, Oregon, where I believe the overwhelming majority feel that we have had more than enough growth at present. Before I suggest what I think that we can and should do about growth, let me address some of the points raised by those who promote, and often make a living from, growth.
Points to Ponder for the Growth Industry . . . The growth industry starts off saying that growth is a given; it is not “whether” we should grow, but “how” we will grow. I reject this premise. It assumes the absence of any effective political will and completely disregards the ultimate consequences of endless, some would say “mindless,” urban growth.
Those of us who have lived in Southern California have seen how that scenario has played out, and it isn’t a pretty picture, literally. My family moved to Lakewood, California, in 1950. At that time, it was much like Salem: surrounded by agriculture (beans, strawberries, and, unlike Salem, citrus groves and dairies). By the time I graduated from high school in 1961, i.e., only 11 years later, all of that had disappeared, replaced by homes and shopping centers, and Lakewood found itself surrounded on all sides by other municipalities. Urban sprawl in that community has reached its ultimate climax, and few are enchanted with the results.
Rapid growth has thrown the City of Salem into significant economic and systemic distress. We have huge infrastructure deficits (school overcrowding, congested roads, overflowing sewage plants, inadequate primary water mains, and local roads falling apart); huge facility maintenance deficits (city-owned historic properties in disrepair, and chunks of concrete falling off of City Hall and our parking structures); a noticeable reduction in public services (fewer police officers and fire fighters per 1,000 population, longer process times for city services, reduction in library hours, and in social and recreational services); increased public bonded debt to do major infrastructure construction (such as new taxes for new roads, schools, and higher rates for waste water treatment plant expansion).
Candidly, Salem’s present level of tax revenue is woefully insufficient to meet the real and legitimate capital and operational needs of a community of this size. Why? Because we keep growing larger and larger, and falling further and further behind in our ability to pay for the care of the larger population and area.
What about the growth industry’s claim that if we impose meaningful growth controls it would toll the death knell for economic growth and prosperity? Would a “go slower” approach amount to shooting ourselves in the wallet?
The evidence gathered from across the country suggests that growth, and especially rapid growth, brings less, rather than more, prosperity in the long run. Even though a bigger city means a bigger tax base, a bigger city also results in a bigger demand for all of the municipal services that have to be met. In addition, indiscriminate job creation seems to attract more people to a community to take the jobs than there are jobs created, resulting in even more people being unemployed after the employment expansion than before. And, if the kind of jobs created are low wage jobs, you end up with greater competition for existing low-cost housing stock, which drives up the price of that housing so that it is no longer “low-cost,” thus failing to meet the needs of the very population it was built to serve. The bottom line is: While growth certainly creates a larger tax base, it clearly costs more than it generates—resulting in a net fiscal drain on the local community.
On the other hand, those who urge us to slow down growth maintain, as Fodor does, that “Underfunded local governments that fail to identify the real costs of growth risk further incurring the anger of voters who wonder why they are getting so little for their tax dollars.”
Salem may have experienced some of that anger, recently, with the defeat of two serial levies that would have assured more library hours, improved some streets, and addressed major fire station deficits. While there was nearly unanimous agreement in the community that these are serious needs, voters were unwilling to dig deeper into their tax pockets to give the city the wherewithal to meet these needs. Are we getting less and less for our tax dollars? Of course we are, because we are having to spread city services more thinly in order to cover an increasingly larger city.
So, can we get control of growth using the “usual” growth management techniques, which essentially involves trying to make growth look and function a little better? Probably not. No matter how well we dress up growth, it’s still growth. The best looking growth, even the best-planned growth, still has an impact on the community. Farm land, forest land, and open spaces may disappear slower and, perhaps, in a more methodical fashion, but they disappear nonetheless. Dr. Albert Bartlett, Colorado University Professor, says that “Smart growth ultimately gets you to exactly the same place as dumb growth— you just get there first class.”
Planning for growth, however, should not be disparaged. It can mitigate some of the problems of urban growth, at least in the short term, and having “first class” growth, involving meaningful design standards and efficient infill, makes the burden of growth less onerous. However, simply accommodating growth through planning is not the ultimate “solution” to the long-range problems brought about by unending growth. GROWTH, itself, must be addressed.
So, are we going to continue to grow until we have overburdened our environment and lost most of what we have come to know and love about our Oregon communities? Is that our collective “vision” for our collective futures? Seems more like a nightmare to me and, unless we do something about it, an inevitable nightmare—one experienced in many communities before us—probably in some of the communities from which you and I thought we had escaped….
Creating a Better Future NOW If we are going to make a difference this time, we must quit “investing” millions of dollars in growth subsidies, tax waivers, and building significant excess system capacities, which primarily serve to stimulate both present and future growth, while ultimately starving other public needs and sacrificing local livability and environmental quality along the way.
Instead, we should start the analysis by asking: How much does growth cost us? Who pays for it? Who benefits from it? What, exactly, are we getting for our money spent on growth?
Do we want more of the same? Or do we want to invest our tax dollars differently from here on out?
We owe our taxpayers truthful and direct answers to these questions. It is no longer debatable that the larger the city, the higher the per capita taxes. New development tends to increase property taxes. Why? Growth creates the need for costly new infrastructure to serve the new development, and new residents are seldom, if ever, required to cover even half of the costs generated by the growth. Existing taxpayers in the community are then literally forced to pick up the rest of the tab. I think that existing taxpayers are getting tired of doing so, and I don’t blame them.
Anti-Growth or Pro-Community? Let’s not succumb to the “Growth Is Inevitable” mantra that the growth industry drums out. They’re just like those folks in robes at the airport—they’re just after our money. We need not be helpless victims of change. We can, and should, set limits to our rate of growth, and even consider capping the ultimate size of our communities, at whatever size we collectively feel is in our best interest. Let me hasten to add: By taking such measures, we are not being “anti-growth,” but rather “pro-community.”
If public funds are requested by development, then we owe it to our taxpayers to require a cost-benefit analysis, which should also look at all of our priorities, including schools, libraries, and fire and police officers. To the extent that there are more people being brought into the community, and thus increasing the demand for—and the price of—housing, we should implement strategies specifically designed to create low cost housing, such as inclusionary zoning, which requires a mix of low and moderate housing in every subdivision over a certain size.
In addition to a “cost-benefit” analysis, we should require a “community benefit” analysis, to take stock of all of the poten-tial impacts, both good and bad, that a major development is apt to bring to our community. It just makes sense to consider the likely impacts of major development proposals before allowing them to be built, rather than trying to mitigate their negative impacts after the fact.
To appreciate all the consequences of growth, we need to anticipate change over a broader time span than the planning professional’s traditional 20-years. We need to plan, and to act, as if we are going to be around for a lot longer than that.
We need to consider what the impacts are, cumulatively, for the next 50 or more years. We should ensure that the rate, amount, type, location, and cost of growth and development will not diminish the quality of life our city has presently attained.
We should assure that new development helps us to achieve our community’s goals, rather than frustrating them, by requiring that it pay its own way. All of our policies and laws should be growth neutral, rather than indiscrimi-nately subsidizing growth as we do now.
Unless we move with dispatch to get these philosophical issues resolved and new visions written into public policy and statutory law, we will be left, literally, in the saw dust of purported progress.
Legacy and Future Nearly 20 years ago, Governor Tom McCall warned us that “… there is a shameless threat to our environment, and to the whole quality of our life, and that is the unfettered despoiling of our land: sagebrush subdivisions; coastal condomania; and the ravenous rampage of suburbia here in the Willamette Valley, all threaten to mock Oregon’s status as the environmental model of this nation…”
You were right, Tom, both then and now; perhaps even more so now. But Oregonians are waking up to the threat and the challenge that you saw so clearly. The only question is whether we are willing to elect public leaders, at both the state and local levels, with the political guts to do something about it....
Mike Swaim is the mayor of Salem, the capital city of Oregon. He is currently running for re-election to a third term in that office. Mike may be contacted by eMail, or at his website www.mikeswaim.com, or you may call him at his office, 503-363-0063.