Durable Growth, Government

Wielding a cudgel when a scalpel would be the better choice

1410190001 Dry Fountain - PatchIn a previous post, I wrote that changing the direction of public policy takes persistent and dedicated effort.  In my words, “stating a perspective and wandering away is a recipe for irrelevance.”

When I wrote those words, I had several examples in mind, but none that were strong enough to insert into the flow of the post.  Little did I expect that when I opened the local newspaper later the same day, a perfect example would be looking back at me from the front page.

Here’s the backstory.  We’re in the midst of a drought that is already of historic levels and shows no signing of abating.  Last fall, a candidate for City Council suggested the possibility of a blanket moratorium on building permits until the drought eased.  Two other candidates concurred that a moratorium might be an appropriate step.

Although I didn’t have a problem with a short moratorium, I disagreed strongly with the possibility of an extended blanket moratorium and wrote about the reasons for my opposition.  Nor was I content to disagree only by written word.  I also appeared before the Council during the public comment portion of their next meeting and repeated my thinking.

Public comment during a public meeting is an odd exercise.  Sometimes there are alternative but cogent perspectives on issues of general interest.  Other times, there are rants of elusive logic on subjects of dubious relevance.  As a result of the latter, the attention of the public body is often elsewhere, perhaps looking about the room or perusing documents that are further down the agenda.

As a result, I wasn’t surprised when four of the Councilmembers didn’t once glance my direction as I spoke.  But the other three, including two who had expressed possible support for a moratorium, paid sharp attention and quickly nodded in apparent agreement with my logic.  By the standards of a public comment presentation, my words were a rousing success.

When the Councilmember who had initially raised the subject of a moratorium approached me at a meeting a week later and disavowed any interest in an extended moratorium, I thought that my perspective had carried the day.

My confidence was a mistake.  Admittedly, I had other worthy uses for my time, such as working on a plan for reuse of the Fairgrounds and writing this blog, but I still should have allocated time to ensure that the concept of an extended blanket moratorium remained truly dead and that my ideas for an alternative approach were gaining ground.

I know I should have made that effort because when I opened the local paper last week, I found an article on how the mayor, one of those who hadn’t made eye contact when I spoke to the Council, was again raising the possibility of a moratorium of up to two years.  I later learned that the Planning Department was already hard at work identifying a list of projects that might be impacted.

Having mistakenly let the initiative slip away, let me belatedly reenter the fray, trying to recapture the hearts and minds that I’d already thought swayed.

I consider a response to the drought absolutely essential.  Extensive reading and a belief in science convinces me that climate change is almost certainly real and that the changes we’re experiencing in North Bay weather are likely to continue far into the future.  It’s past time to change how we use water.  Building design is one of the best places to start.

But an extended blanket moratorium would miss the mark on several levels.

For one, an extended moratorium sends a message, inadvertent but still perceived, that the drought is a cyclical, not systemic, phenomenon, that if we just wait for a few years normal rainfall patterns will reassert themselves.  But the reality is that what we’re now experiencing is likely the new normal.

For another, an extended blanket moratorium sends a message that all development is equally culpable for increased water use, when the reality is that development has a wide range of water usages.  As an analogy, it’s as if we’re responding to a gasoline supply crisis by banning the manufacture of all cars, including Priuses and Teslas along with 15 mile-per-gallon monster pickups.

So, what should we do instead?  To begin, I have little problem with a shorter moratorium of 45 or even 90 days.  We need new water conservation standards and we need them now.  (I remain frustrated with myself and with others that the discussion of a moratorium last fall didn’t trigger a meaningful discussion of new standards.)

But after the initial moratorium, we should be prepared to release projects that meet strict standards of water conservation.  I don’t know exactly what those that standards should be, but I’d be happy to join with folks willing to have that conversation.  Among the topics that I’d expect to be on the table are:

  • Possibilities for reduced water use through better plumbing.
  • Water bill surcharges to give the City funds to find and to repair watermain leaks.
  • Strict caps on water use, with meaningful penalties for excess use, based on self-reported counts of household residents and square feet of yard area. (The self-reported data would need to be subject to random review.)
  • Requirements on developers to buy up existing water usage by paying homeowners to accept deed restrictions prohibiting grass and capping water use.

A prime reason that the initial moratorium should be of limited duration is that it’s often the smaller developers, with less financial backing, who have been proposing the more creative reduced water use projects.  An extended moratorium would have the perverse effect of driving from the business the developers who’ve been trying most diligently to address the water conservation concern.

After the initial moratorium, if we choose to put an extended moratorium, or even a permanent moratorium, on land use projects that would continue to use water profligately, I’m fine with that.

The Petalumans of a century hence are likely to look back at our time as particularly critical in the history of our town, much as we look back on the significant changes that occurred in Petaluma during the first decades of the 19th century.  And of the challenges in front of us, how we adjust to climate change is among the most important.

So the future will likely judge us by our ability to formulate effective, meaningful, and well-calibrated responses to climate change.

Picking up the big cudgel of an extended blanket moratorium, donning a blindfold, and swinging wildly in hopes of striking something useful isn’t what the future is expecting of us.  We can do better.

(Acknowledgment: I’ve had a role in several projects that would be affected by the proposed moratorium.  I’m also talking with other developers about similar roles on future projects.  Most of these projects would benefit from the more calibrated approach to water conservation described above over an extended blanket moratorium.  However, I’ve chosen to work only with developers who have a responsible approach to water use, so it’s not surprising that my thoughts on the subject align with the interests of the developers for whom I work and may work.)

My next couple of posts will represent a major change-of-pace.  Given the seriousness of the subject of this post, I’m a little embarrassed by the change, but April Fools’ Day is upon us.

Up until about a year ago, I offered quarterly updates on the quirks and whimsy that can attach itself to urbanism.  But then I found that I always had other, more pressing topics on which I wanted to write, so I began skipping my quarterly updates.  My stockpile of whimsy and quirkiness accumulated.  The next two posts will dig into that stockpile, hopefully giving a few smiles and also triggering a few useful ideas about urbanism.

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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