Write Lightning is a blog from writer Deb Thompson.
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Tue, Sep 20 2005

Grow Or Die--Maybe Both

I watched local TV coverage of more general plan talk from the Watsonville City Council last night. I applaud council members who continue to press for clarification. Some council members last night asked for more detailed explanation of some of the ethereal terms being tossed around. Much of the language is so broad (supposedly in the interest of allowing for future changes) that it sounds like doublespeak. The plans involve some specifics, but those who will benefit from the overgrowth know that providing specifics causes more opposition from those already suspicious of former hype. Accountability for future troubles would be much easier to duck down the road if one speaks now only in generalities. But a few council members seem determined to seek answers. I hope eligible voters will do the same.

The people of Friends of Buena Vista have been resisting the "plan" to annex these rural rolling hills outside Watsonville and fill them with dense housing and some token minimum wage jobs. And we watch other resistance movements, including Rancho San Juan Opposition Coalition in neighboring Monterey County. Unfortunately, we won't be able to vote against that one. But neither were we allowed to vote against Measure U in our own county, even though we'll be the ones most affected by such "planned" overgrowth. The planners invited a few members of our group to join focus groups and help them work on things. But then the less dense housing numbers presented in focus groups came back as much more dense numbers. It caused people to perceive the focus groups to then be regarded as a way to brag later that the planners had done things with our consent and cooperation. Resentment has continued to build at what has been seen as manipulation and even outright lying. The planners perceive the resistance movement as recalcitrant and the resistance movement digs in the old proverbial collective heels a little deeper. And so it goes. It's not a pretty situation. And it doesn't seem to be getting any better.

As cities plan more dense housing and (supposedly) affordable housing they attempt to appease by carefully crafting artificial open space--space like mini-parks and golf courses. But the buffer zone that is between individual households and would maintain a sense of privacy becomes reduced to a strip of shrubs and sidewalks. Any natural sense of personal space is forced out as people give up a pleasing view out the window for the chance to buy something--anything--affordable in one of the most beautiful places in the world. But then how long will those who bought for beauty and that natural view put up with the density that is being forced into their area? Some of the landownders have been here for generations and let's be blunt. Some have money. Some will take their money and get out, leaving what was once a diverse natural area. As more and more barely affordable housing is created more and more affluent people will either resent the newcomers or will simply sell out and move to someplace less crowded. The sale of their land may result in rezoning so that several homes will be placed on a piece of land that once held one house. The city council can argue with me but I've seen this happen in more than one place. Urban sprawl breeds more urban sprawl. Land parcels rezoned for dense housing rarely revert to former rural vistas. When most of the owners of large parcels leave they take a lot of community wealth with them. I don't think anyone is adverse to helping folks have affordable homes. But if we're honest with ourselves we'll admit that stacking people into barely affordable homes on very tiny lots is someday going to kill the diversity and charm of the community. And forcing this on the people who chose the area for its diversity and charm has consequences. Add that to the fact that voting on Measure U was restricted to people who already lived in the city limits of Watsonville. How can the council expect anything but resistance from the Buena Vista community? If they don't meet that resistance with honesty and at least some deference to the established neighborhood residents they have blinders on. No General Plan full of little parks and subsidized daycare centers is going to fix that issue. They're choosing future residents' needs over present residents' needs and they'll have a hard time justifying their actions. That's just the way it is.

Sometimes I think the hard times that come after a natural disaster--such as the recent devastation created by Hurricane Katrina--also contain a golden opportunity to take a second look at the way we crowd people into urban and suburban areas. We live, sometimes literally, stacked on top of one another. As we attempt to plan for growth in desirable communities, are we really making the best use of the rare bits of open land still available to us? When everything begins to look like everything else in the neighborhood we give up what was once part of the draw of a beautiful area. In our attempts to accommodate everyone we force plans that bring more conflict than harmony and more problems than solutions. Too many California community leaders seem more than willing to learn the hard way--at taxpayer expense.

posted at: 09:12 | category: /Politics | link to this entry

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