Durable Growth

Red Barn: Sometimes a compromise isn’t the right answer (part 1)

Red Barn Site

Red Barn Site

I know a land-use planner whose judgment I respect.  During our years of working together, she often said that a compromise is appropriate if it equally disappoints people on both sides of a disagreement.  She wasn’t the first person to say this, but she said it frequently enough that I always associate the concept with her.

In general, it’s a reasonable rule.  It provides helpful guidance in many cases.  But it’s not always true.

There are times when the middle-ground of a compromise is untenable.  My favorite counter-example is the Spanish Inquisition.  At the height of the Inquisition, there was a faction of Spaniards who believed that many people deserved to die for their religious thinking.  And there was another faction who believed that only a few people deserved to die for their thoughts.  A compromise would have been that a moderate number of people deserved to die for their supposed heresies.

From the perspective of five centuries, we agree that no one deserves to die for their religious thinking, no matter how heretical or contrary to popular opinion.  A compromise on executions during the Spanish Inquisition might have met the standard of equally displeasing both extremes, but wouldn’t have been viewed with approval by posterity.

I mention this because there is a Petaluma land-use action underway for which the compromises under consideration are as flawed as any Spanish Inquisition compromises might have been.

Historical Red Barn

Historical Red Barn

The Red Barn site, sometimes called Scotts Ranch, lays on both sides of Windsor Street, immediately west of D Street, near the urban/rural boundary.  It’s a bucolic site, with rolling hillsides, a small stream, and a historical barn and farmhouse.  It would seem an unlikely site for residential development, except for one fact.  It’s surrounded on three sides by residential development, making it the next logical step as Petaluma expands.

Davidon Homes acquired development rights several years ago and is now pursuing entitlements.  (Disclaimer: As a consulting engineer, I provided site design services on a Davidon project in another community.  The project ended well for both parties.  And I enjoyed many of the Davidon folks with whom I worked.)

Recognizing the topographic, geologic, and biological challenges of the site, Davidon proposed 93 homes, which results in a lower density that the Windsor subdivision immediately adjoining the site to the west.  Through the environment impact study (EIS), as required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), several less intense projects were also identified, including 66, 43, and 28 home alternatives.  As required under CEQA, a no-development alternative was also to be studied.

Davidon has seemingly indicated a willingness to settle on the 66-home alternative.  Some community members are willing to accept that compromise.  Others would prefer the 43-home plan or even less.

All of which misses the point.  StrongTowns tells us that we have a problem providing funding for infrastructure maintenance, a problem that will only worsen with time.  (I’ve written about StrongTowns on my blog several times in recent months.  But rather than searching my archive, I suggest reading their Curbside Chat booklet if you need a refresher.)

StrongTowns argues that our cities and counties can’t collect enough property tax revenue to fund the necessary infrastructure maintenance.  And that much of the problem results from sprawl by which the property tax base is spread over too much land and too much infrastructure.

The exact calculations that would prove the StrongTowns theory are complex and elusive.  Much relies on assumptions about the future.

  • How willing will a future electorate be to pay for municipal services?
  • Will Proposition 13 be revised?
  • Will the allocation of property tax revenues between cities and counties be modified?
  • Will the state play a role if infrastructure maintenance becomes critical?
  • What are the costs of other services, such as police, that must be funded from property taxes?
  • Will engineers find more efficient ways to maintain infrastructure?
  • Or are our infrastructure maintenance assumptions already too optimistic?

Despite all these uncertainties, we know two facts to be true.  One, maintaining existing infrastructure has become increasingly beyond the financial capabilities of most cities and counties.  Potholes and unrepaired streetlights are two measures among many.  And those measures have been troublesome for a decade, so can’t be blamed on the recession.

Two, the increasing inability to maintain our stuff came during an era when we allowed our cities to spread horizontally, with infrastructure increasing more rapidly than population.

Those two facts alone are enough to establish the credibility of StrongTowns.

And how do the Red Barn proposals measure against what StrongTowns tells us about the financial and economic sustainability of infrastructure?  Not well.  With 93 homes spread over the site, the density is already below most other Petaluma subdivisions.  It is an example of the types of development which StrongTowns tells us can’t be financially sustained.  And the proposed compromises to 66 homes or fewer would make the density even less.

This isn’t a criticism of the CEQA process.  I think improvements can and should be made to CEQA.  But in this case, the problem isn’t the answer that CEQA might spit out, it’s the question that CEQA was asked.  It’s likely that none of the alternatives offered for CEQA analysis were good solutions for the next generation of Petalumans.

So, what alternatives should have been offered?  Not surprisingly, I have thoughts on that point.  But I’m hesitant to demand too much of your attention today.  So, I’ll answer the question in my next blog post.  But as you can likely guess, it’ll be an answer that falls outside of the current possible compromises.  I’ve learned lessons from StrongTowns and from the Spanish Inquisition.

Scheduling Notes and Follow-Ups

The next Petaluma Urban Chat meeting will be Tuesday, April 9.  We’ll convene at 5:30pm at the Aqus Café.  The topic will be Walkable City by Jeff Speck.  But all are welcome whether or not they’ve read the book.

Those who attended the February Urban Chat, which was the video chat with Charles Marohn of StrongTowns, may remember that Marohn mentioned the possibility of a 2013 StrongTowns tour of California.  Marohn has now announced that the plans are taking shape.  Fundraising and final scheduling remain to be completed, but Marohn is thinking of a trip in September or October.  I’ve communicated with him regarding an interest in having North Bay in his plans.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

12 comments to Red Barn: Sometimes a compromise isn’t the right answer (part 1)

  • Wanderer

    Developers respond to this kind of thing by proposing more units than they really want, so they can achieve a reasonable number after negotiations. It’s a terrible way to do business. It heightens conflict, complicates environmental review, and muddies transparency. But if the inevitable response of neighbors to every single development project is “Less!” there’s really not much of an alternative.

    • Wanderer, thanks for the comment. You make a good point. One partial solution is what Oregon does, require a minimum density for a zone. And the minimums can be fairly high. So neither the developer nor the neighbors can argue for fewer units below a certain amount.

  • I agree that lowering density is a non-starter for cost-effective infrastructure investment. It seems there’s a tipping-point for infrastructure. For example, if the subdivision were low-density enough and far away from contiguous city limits/urban-scale development, it might consider septic tanks/package plant (these DEFINITELY have their own issues) vs. installing city sewer/water lines to feed into existing system. The latter option, as you pointed out, becomes an issue if the operating/maintaining entity (city, water/sewer district) is having trouble keeping up maintenance on the EXISTING system, let alone additions.
    Developers think impact fees are arbitrary and downright illegal, but they DO have a purpose – sparing the tax/rate-payer. (Charlotte area cities are having impact fees/APFO dissolved before their eyes – Davidson, NC just lost ability for APFO, Cabarrus Co., NC just revoked/refunded school impact fees).

    • Scott, thanks for the comment. I agree that impact fees have a legitimate purpose, although I can sometimes quibble with the methodology used for establishing them. (http://vibrantbayarea.org/2013/03/from-today-to-tod-impact-fees/) But impact fees are only intended to cover the infrastructure costs at development, such as road widenings or sewer plant expansions. The StrongTowns argument concerns a time further downstream, perhaps thirty years in the future, when major infrastructure maintenance is required. StrongTowns argues that, for low density development in particular, insufficient property taxes will have been collected to fund the maintenance. They argue that much of the current municipal financial distress is the result of this deficiency. They further argue the cities are motivated to approve new development so they can use new impact fees to fund deferred maintenance, thereby perpetuating the problem. Ponzi scheme is an accurate description.

  • Jay Cosnett

    My question is, why develop at all? Since we’re having trouble paying for the upkeep of the infrastructure we’ve got, it doesn’t seem prudent to extend our obligations even further.

    It also fascinates me that we somehow see this as a public responsibility. A hundred years ago, a developer couldn’t sell a single lot without building a streetcar line for people to get there. In light of our carbon-constrained reality, that would seem like a bare minimum requirement before even considering development. Do we expect everyone (anyone?) who lives there in 30 years to drive? I certainly hope not.

    With existing housing on three sides, the current taxpayers might be far better served by repurposing the property as a community farm, where they could reduce their carbon emissions by growing food without fossil fuels, rather than creating yet another new auto dependent subdivision, further straining existing infrastructure and overheating the planet.

  • Jay, thanks for commenting. On the infrastructure maintenance shortfall, ceasing development is a flawed solution on a couple of points, which I’ll note below. The better approaches are to (1) allow new subdivisions only if they are financially sustainable and (2) to change existing subdivisions and/or the tax structure to improve sustainability of existing development.

    As to whether cities should allow new development, there are several reasons, both good and bad, why they should. The principal bad reason is that the impact fees are required to maintain old infrastructure. That kind of development is nothing more than kicking the can down the road. The principal good reason is to create situations where people have reduced work commutes and commutes that can be accommodated without cars.

    Regarding early 20th century development, I agree that developers had to provide some combination of transit, roads, water, and sewer to sell lots. Those realities haven’t changed. But over the century, most of the functions have become municipal. We no longer allow homes or subdivisions to drill wells, to maintain sewage treatment plants, or to construct new roads into town. Instead, we require developers to pay impact fees so the cities will provide the services. It’s the same obligation in a different form.

    Regarding community farms, I agree that there is a place for those. But the most important carbon-reduction tool is walkability. If we can create new walkable communities, including access to work without the use of cars, that should be the highest priority.

    • Jay Cosnett

      Hi Dave, thanks for your reply.

      Agree 100% on your better approaches, (1) and (2).

      On the question of new development, while I agree that the “good reason” you cite can be *a* good reason, I wonder whether or not it rises to the level of necessary and sufficient, especially when such a magnificent piece of greenspace is concerned. By way of background, I’m in Portland, Oregon. Oregon’s often-praised Urban Growth Boundary system is what I’m familiar with, so I’m also familiar with what are almost always paper-thin excuses to expand the urban footprint farther and farther from existing jobs and infrastructure, which developers of course prefer to the smaller, harder but ultimately much more sustainable practice of better utilizing land that’s already inside the UGB.

      Some of the questions I would think should be asked include,

      *Are their alternatives that could be developed within existing urbanized areas? Top on my list are always surface parking lots. Frankly, until every surface lot has it’s parking put underground (if at all) and 3 or 4 stories of mixed housing/commercial/office built above it, I think we should be extremely loath to pave anything.

      *Do we really, REALLY *need* to? In Oregon, the development lobby bribed enough State legislators to pass an absurd requirement that every UGB contain enough *vacant* land inside it to satisfy 20 years of projected growth, both for housing and for industry/employment. Given that land can almost never be UN-developed, it means jurisdictions are required to have their crystal balls forever calibrated on OVER-estimating growth, leading to exactly what the developers wanted–an oversupply of cheap land at the fringes of infrastructure. Our last big residential UGB expansion happened 10 years ago and, without the money for transit and other needed support, it will (thankfully) probably never be developed. In the mean time, we have endless strip malls and surface parking lots (many dating to when historic buildings were razed in the 1950s).

      *What’s the best us of this, unique parcel? Subdivisions can be built anywhere. (I question, of course, whether they *should* be, but that’s another question.) This parcel, judging from the photo, is remarkable. I remember a lot of open space in the East Bay hills that was preserved from development–while I would question the decision to push development further and further outward (questions which the housing crash certainly validated), I can’t imagine anyone seriously questioning the wisdom of preserving that landscape, so close to so many people.

      * What’s the effect on carbon emissions, compared to real alternatives? Yes, we need walkable, transit-oriented communities, but compared to leaving it green, there isn’t a contest since you’re comparing carbon-emitting vs. carbon absorbing. We should not assume development will occur–we should require it to justify itself in any and all terms, and only pave as a last resort. Comparing a good development here to a bad development somewhere else presumes that bad development is the only option and I don’t think that’s been proven.

      Regarding how we pay for infrastructure, then and now, my quarrel is not with how we do it (I agree the public should decide what’s needed, not private developers), but with what we require–in every case I’ve ever seen, a new development’s transportation needs are considered met by one means and one means only–roads. (Maybe a bike path here or there.) Requiring much more–TOD, street-facing mixed use, walkable commercial districts, and, yes, streetcars and/or light rail–again seems like a minimum to get above the threshold of “don’t pave unless you absolutely have to, and then pave in the most compact, most sustainable way possible.”

      Finally, I agree that walkable communities should be our highest priority, but I question whether paving open space is ever the best way to do that, given how much under-utilized property we have in already urbanized areas. Shouldn’t the Planner’s oath be the same as the Physicians: First, do no harm?

      • Jay, thanks for the response. I also have roots in Oregon land use, working for 13 years in Central Oregon. A fomer planner co-worker is now a local DLCD representative. And my best friend from my time in Oregon was a successful politician who was the State Treasurer when he passed away too young.

        I agree that there is a balance to be judged between development and the protection of green space. In this case, I think a key point is that the 59-acre parcel adjoins a 216-acre regional park. There is still value in expanding the park, but the value is less than if there was no immediately adjacent open space. Plus, there’s value in providing walkable amenities to partially remediate the adjoining drivable suburban development.

        It’s a close call between the two land uses, which would depend on a land plan that nobody will develop anytime soon, but I suspect that I’d favor the development option.

        I certainly agree the urban core development is preferred. I made that point in the blog posts that followed this one. Indeed, I provided professional and civic involvement services on many possible downtown developments. However, it’s tough to overcome the institutional biases against downtown development. In a perfect world, I can see more that twenty years of downtown development before we again look to the urban fringe. But in our imperfect world, making urban fringe development as good as possible remains a necessary and often impossible task.

        I agree that non-development is a better environmental option if we look only at the potential development parcel. But if the likely result of non-development is twenty-mile commutes by the folks who would have lived in the development, then the balance reverses. Of course, the facts are never that clear-cut, but the work-jobs balance remains a key element of land planning.

        I agree that non-vehicular transportation should have a bigger role in new development. However, we first need to make the development amenable to non-vehicular travel. I’m tired of seeing 8-foot sidewalks and well-marked bike lanes on streets that are too far from any meaningful destinations. As Jeff Speck notes, for walkability, we need walks to be useful, comfortable, safe, and interesting. And in the U.S., we often act as if safe is enough.

  • […] my last post, I argued that the public good isn’t always served by compromise.  I used the pending Red Barn […]

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