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Anti-Growth or Pro-Community Salem’s Mayor Makes His Case, Part 2

(Anti-Growth or Pro-Community? . . . p2)

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….

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