Durable Growth

Casting shadows on urbanism

Park in Petaluma

Park in Petaluma

Two posts ago, I introduced an argument put forth by renowned baseball analyst Bill James, who also comments with acuity and insight on any other subject that interests him.  In his non-baseball role, he contended in his book “Solid Fool’s Gold” that if infinite value is assigned to any single element of a complex decision, the resulting decision will be distorted.

As James describes it, any two values, no matter how individually worthy on their own, will eventually come into conflict.  Whether those values are honesty and modesty, cleanliness and punctuality, generosity and thriftiness, or any number of other combinations, there will be some set of circumstances that brings them into conflict.  When that conflict occurs, having the flexibility to balance competing objectives is essential.  And giving infinite weight to one of the values eliminates that flexibility.

In James’ monograph on the subject, he challenged the TSA airline safety measures implemented after 9/11.  He also noted the changing approach to the criminal justice system under the Earl Warren Supreme Court.

I thought his argument had merit and immediately applied it to a balancing of traffic congestion versus youth sports that recently occurred in Petaluma.

But then a possible better example came to my attention just a few miles south.  Although subsequent information seemed to undermine the value of the example, the story still contains lessons.

The tale begins in 1984 with the approval by San Francisco voters of Proposition K, the “Sunlight Ordinance”.  Under the terms of the ordinance, as interpreted and implemented by the San Francisco Planning Department, any proposed development that would shade any portion of a city park, no matter how minor the shading, requires a finding by the Park and Recreation Commission that “the shadow is determined to be insignificant or not adverse to the use of the park”.

Accordingly, the Commission recently denied a proposed affordable housing project that would shade 0.07 percent of an adjoining park.  0.07 percent!   It seemed a perfect example of a single value being assigned infinite value and resulting in a flawed result.

But then other information became evident, as might have been expected given the 30-year lag between the adoption and the first denial.  It seems that the Parks and Recreation Commission had regularly found shadows to be insignificant and/or not adverse, not tripping up a single project with that hurdle until this decision.

As a result of the long string of decisions, the Commission was coming under fire.  On this specific project in the Mission District, the neighbors were particularly adamant in their opposition and the applicant, based on other land-use activities, was considered odious by many so the Commission decided to finally flex their authority under the thirty-year-old ordinance.

So, it seems that the Mission District example had more to do with old-fashioned politics than mis-weighted decision elements.  However, it still provides an insight into how a poorly constructed entitlement model can lead to flawed decisions.

In the past, I’ve expressed a concern that historic preservation, as much as I enjoy historic settings and bemoan the loss of some buildings that I never had a chance to experience, can sometimes be given a weight that inhibits good planning and good social policy.

Also, I once lived in a county that had a very strict sunlight protection ordinance, although the focus of the rule was the access of sunlight to photovoltaic arrays, not to parks.  As I recall, single-family homes were allowed to cast no shade on neighboring lots beyond which would be cast by existing trees and by a hypothetical eight-foot fence at the property line.  The shading potential was to be calculated for the hour before and after solar noon on the shortest day of the year.  And that standard was absolute, with no exceptions for “insignificant or not adverse” impacts.

Applying the standard required astronomical calculating skills, three-dimensional geometry, and assumptions about how much shade a 70-foot pine tree actually cast.  All were interesting exercises.

And as much I approved the preservation of solar access for alternative energy generation, I wasn’t sure if the effect of spacing houses further apart, inhibiting walkability, was truly good public policy.

So even if the Mission District example didn’t quite make the point it first seemed, it and the other examples noted above still offer good lessons about how an entitlement process can go awry if we don’t allow competing objectives to be reasonably balanced.

And urbanism in particular would suffer under a flawed entitlement model.

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.

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