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Smart Growth vs. Wisely Planned Communities

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by Stuart M. Flashman, Ph.D., J.D.

 Over the past several years, a new catch phrase has sprung up in the environmental community: “smart growth”.  It arose as environmentalists struggled to find an attractive alternative to the low-density auto-oriented development that has become endemic to American suburban areas.  The latter is often popularly referred to (within the environmental community, at least) as “suburban sprawl”.

What is smart growth?  It is an attempt to direct growth into less environmentally damaging avenues.  Thus, smart growth favors “infill” development (i.e., development within already urbanized areas) instead of development of previously undeveloped areas (“greenflields”).  Smart growth attempts to promote transit-oriented rather than auto-oriented development, for example by focusing high-density development around public transit hubs.  Perhaps most relevant to the following discussion, smart growth tries to minimize the increase in demand for limited resources, such as water, by promoting development that uses less of those resources (for example, apartment buildings that have minimal landscaped area and therefore use less water for irrigation).

Environmental groups, most notably the Sierra Club, have launched a major campaign in support of smart growth.  The basic idea is that America has been foolishly squandering its environmental resources on an inefficient form of development.  The campaign appears to be paying off.  Governmental agencies have begun to discuss smart growth as a better way to accommodate expected increases in population.  This trend has been particularly true in California, and nowhere more so than in the San Francisco Bay area.

However, the success of the smart growth movement only serves to highlight what it fails to address – the long-term question of how much growth a region can reasonably accommodate. This issue has often been referred to as regional carrying capacity.

While regional carrying capacity has many components, probably the single most obvious and most important is infrastructure – the various logistic components needed to keep a human population supplied and functional.  Among the major modern infrastructure components are water supply, treatment and distribution, wastewater collection, treatment, and disposal, solid waste disposal, energy supply and distribution, roadways, and public mass transit.  Other components that tend to be less limiting, at least in terms of physical facilities, include education, public safety, and recreational facilities.

Most of the current discussion of smart growth takes the projected amount of future growth as a given.[1]   There is little discussion of what can or should be done to limit the amount of future population growth in a region.  Yet, the amount of growth that will occur in a region is certainly affected by a variety of factors; most notably increased employment demand.  This, in turn, is affected by multiple factors, including the local economy, cost of living, availability of trained workforce, and availability of necessary infrastructure.  The latter would seem to provide a feedback loop that would keep population growth in balance with infrastructure, but it does not appear to have worked very well, at least in the short run.

Part of the reason infrastructure limits have failed to control job growth may be that such limits are often hidden.  Thus, for example, water agencies are usually required to issue “will serve” letters before a development project is built.  These letters are supposed to ensure that the water agency has sufficient supply and facilities to serve the new development.  However, water agencies routinely issue will serve letters based on supplies and facilities that are only projected.  The same often holds true for wastewater treatment and disposal.  Other infrastructure components, such as roads and public transit, do not require any kind of review and approval prior to development approval, other than the general discussion that occurs during the environmental review process.  More often than not, this process is seen as just one more hoop to be jumped through to get to development approval.  Thus, Environmental Impact Reports all too often contain flawed or cursory analyses of traffic (and other) impacts.  Even such unavoidable infrastructure-related impacts as are identified are routinely accepted as undesirable but necessary consequences of the need to promote economic development.

As a result, development often ends up straining the capacity of the agencies responsible for infrastructure.  Thus, development in the Santa Rosa area north of San Francisco has repeatedly outstripped sewage treatment capacity, resulting in overflows of raw sewage into the Russian River.  Similarly, the inability of water supplies to keep pace with urban and suburban growth has contributed to California’s more and more frequent “water shortage emergencies”.[2]

The California legislature has begun to acknowledge the need to address infrastructure before projects are approved.  The 2001 legislative session passed SB221 (Kuehl).  This statute, for the first time, requires that before a subdivision map or development agreement for a large-scale residential project is approved, the water agency proposed to supply the project verify that it has a sufficient water supply for the project.  This bill does not address the need for long-term planning at the level of the general plan.  (But see, Government Code 65302(d) and 65352.5 [providing for coordination between water agency and land use agency and discussion of the adequacy of water supply in the general plan conservation element].)  Nor does it address the broader question of the overall adequacy of regional infrastructure.  Further, the bill, as it was finally passed, contains numerous loopholes that call into question its ability to impact on regional planning.  Nevertheless, it represents the first time the legislature has acknowledged the folly of cities and counties approving development projects while closing their collective eyes to the inadequacy of infrastructure to support those projects.

In the San Francisco Bay area, the Association of Bay Area Governments (“ABAG”) has recently undertaken a regional “smart growth” planning initiative.  The project expects to produce a coordinated set of county plans for the region.  These plans would aim to accommodate the growth projected in local general plans, while minimizing the conversion of “greenfields” to developed uses.  However, these plans include no consideration of the limits on available regional infrastructure.

It should be obvious from the above discussion that without consideration of carrying capacity, such “smart growth” plans are little more than an exercise in Pollyanna planning, with little connection to what really will happen in the Bay Area over the next twenty years.  Indeed, if these planning efforts continue as currently envisaged, the most likely result is that far before their build-out is complete, Bay Area development will grind to a halt, stymied by the inadequacy of available infrastructure.  The economic cost of such an unplanned economic “train wreck” will be colossal -- far greater than if ABAG had taken carrying capacity into account and planned a gradual transition to a steady-state regional population and economy.

In short, ABAG’s current smart growth initiative stands at a crossroads.  If it continues on its current course, it will almost certainly fail, providing ammunition to those who claim that smart growth is unworkable.  If, on the other hand, it is modified to take into account the region’s long-term carrying capacity, it could serve as a model for how to manage regional planning in a way that addresses both economic vitality and the very real limits on growth.


[1]   The discussion that follows does not address the much broader and, in the long term, even more serious Malthusian limits to growth.  Needless to say, neither infrastructure improvements nor, for that matter, changes in development or immigration policies, will avert long-term catastrophe if population exceeds basic infrastructure components such as food supply.

[2]   This is not to say that infrastructure limits are immovable.  With sufficient capital input, infrastructure can often be expanded.  For example, new highways, sewage treatment facilities, and public transit lines can be built.  In coastal areas, desalinization is even an option.  However, these initiatives can be prohibitively expensive.   To take one example, Santa Barbara built a desalinization facility, but was forced to mothball it because of its excessive operating expense.

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Law Offices of
Stuart M. Flashman
5626 Ocean View Drive
Oakland, CA 94618-1533
(510) 652-5373 (voice & fax)
 
 
 
last updated:  November 17, 2008