On several occasions I’ve heard my friend Robert Dashiell say that development never pays for itself. If you believe that all development is dangerous, it’s easy to come up with examples to illustrate, if not to prove the point. But is the observation valid as a general rule?
The question is crucially important right now in our community. A great deal depends on how we consider development-related issues. What is decided, and what is done with all that is learned during the Comprehensive Plan update and other work that’s going forward in this year and the next, will establish the patterns for our long-term future.
Let me be specific about what I mean by “development.” It’s a mixed bag. New housing is uppermost in my mind, since I assume that like it or not, there will be a net increase in Bainbridge Island’s population over the next twenty years and beyond. New houses will be built, and some of our existing stock will be demolished or rehabbed.
There will be other building to accommodate businesses of all sorts. If, as I expect, the demand for local produce continues to support new providers, farming will flourish. A changing population will call for changes in infrastructure, to provide more effectively for mobility, water and other utilities, and waste disposal.
If it is true, as a general rule, that development doesn’t pay for itself, then all visions of “sustainable development” are moonshine: the trend lines will move eventually to exhaustion of resources and entropy. But are we doomed to a boom and bust future? Can we turn the trend lines in a positive direction?
I should make clear at this point that I’m not a booster for development. Being in favor of regulation and long-range planning for the community’s needs is not, in my book, a pro-development stance. But how can the City prevent undeveloped land from being developed? The question is, what kind of development should be permitted?
Looking back a few decades, it’s not hard to see development that has paid for itself generously, both in the short and the long term. Imagine Bainbridge without the Agate Passage bridge, and with the roads and the ferry service of the 1940s. Imagine a much smaller population, with anyone’s sense of place and community focused on separate neighborhoods, not on a thriving civic identity.
With the passing of each generation, much is lost, but it’s my sense that as our population has increased, so has the potential for individual growth and communal vitality. However, we have not consistently realized our potential, and our increasing population has only begun to get the message that the rent’s due, the piper has to be paid. Now we see the long-term consequences of short-sighted policies.
Robert Dashiell would probably point out that the impact fees and other costs involved in taking undeveloped land and building either housing or commercial real estate don’t come close to covering the many practical consequences of development, and I would agree with him.
To too great an extent, our market here is at the mercy of people who take the money and run; profits don’t stay within the community, and many ventures that are profitable offer little or no benefit except to the buyer and the seller. So should impact fees, other costs of development, and property taxes be jacked up? I doubt that that would fix the problem, and it would certainly create other problems.
If we look more closely, and in a broader context, at the costs and benefits of different types of development, we should be able to discriminate between those that pass muster as sustainable and beneficial, and those that fail to pencil out.
I see a need to say at this point that I’m no expert at cost and benefit analysis; I’m just trying to apply common sense to a matter of concern to all citizens. I want to see others, who have more expertise and may have a stake in solutions, taking part in a long problem-solving discussion of these issues.
In what follows, I want to focus the discussion on the costs and benefits of building new homes.
The first set of costs has to do with the environmental impacts of development. These will vary, case by case. To be sustainable, the impacts of construction, from road-building and site preparation to the finished and furnished home, have to be kept to a minimum. Elaborate regulations apply to all aspects of land clearing and building, but in practice everything is biased in favor of the developer: the bottom line requires the most efficient, least expensive way to get the job done, and what gets in the way is gone.
I recognize that there may be a big difference between what’s seen as beneficial to the neighborhood or the larger community, and what the owner or owners of a piece of property regard as their best interests. Sometimes there’s an unbridgeable gap, and property rights prevail. Like gravity, the right to use property for profit is “not just a good idea, it’s the law!” Which is why it’s so difficult to craft good land use regulations, and so important.
Most of the undeveloped acreage on the Island is zoned R-0.4, which permits (if I may simplify) one house per 2.5 acres. Many individual lots in that zone are smaller than 2.5 acres, and some of them are impacted by wetland or other constraints on development.
The development potential in those areas is still considerable, but also limited. And the same can be said for the conservation potential: the land’s value for forests and open space, as wildlife habitat, and for aquifer recharge.
We have to think critically, and imaginatively, about trade-offs. Surely it is possible in many circumstances to plan for homes that make good use of all that’s given on the property in its undeveloped state, keeping the disturbance of its natural beauty and ecological characteristics to a minimum.
If you look around the Island, it’s easy to find examples of incompatibility between a house and its surroundings, but there are also many examples, in older homes and recent construction, where harmony has been achieved. I want to see reckless development prevented; I hope to see harmony prevail.
Our natural resources are resilient; given time, they can recover even from ruthless exploitation. (Try to imagine the island during and after the clear-cutting that accompanied heavy industry in the mills at Port Madison and Port Blakely.) The tall trees we see today were much smaller in the 1940s and 50s, when Bainbridge as we know it began to take shape. But for all sorts of reasons, we can no longer afford ruthless exploitation.
A culture of stewardship exists here, thanks to the voluntary, sometimes highly organized, efforts of many citizens. Voluntary stewardship has prospered here outside the scope of regulations in our Municipal Code, but stewardship efforts can be undercut when gaps and incoherence in the regulations permit reckless and scofflaw activities. This has to be fixed.
Inevitably, development changes the ecology of undeveloped land, and people moving into acres that had been uninhabited will make other changes to suit their lifestyle. Let’s imagine, though, development that is careful to preserve much more than the prescribed “buffers,” and that minimizes the impacts of building and dwelling on the land. Can’t we expect the people living there to be changed by the house they live in, and by the pleasure they take in their surroundings? Their impact on their property can be positive.
That’s my utopian scenario. It’s sketchy and tentative, in need of critique and elaboration. And there’s a dystopian side to my preoccupation with the
future of Bainbridge Island.
In ten to twenty years, will we have a population that is committed to a substantive stewardship agenda, to tend and sustain what remains of our natural environment? Do we have such a population now, or are we losing touch with our rural heritage? Are we, perhaps, already involved in an inexorable slide toward a fancy, green, exclusive suburbia?
I have said – and I want to believe – that a culture of stewardship is still vital here on Bainbridge. Many people are willing to commit both time and money to caring for their own property and the common good. I have believed that all we need are regulations and voluntary programs that support such stewardship, in order make positive changes in the patterns of land use and development. I’ll be the first to admit, though, that I don’t yet know the strength in numbers of people who will just say, “I haven’t got time for your ‘stewardship,’ let me live my life.”
I worry that we will blow our last chance to change our land use regulations and the institutional culture in City Hall, allowing market forces to carry us willy-nilly into a future that many people now say they don’t want.
It’s one thing to say, “these are my values, this is what I want for myself and my community,” and it’s quite another to make the choices and do the work required to put the future you imagine on a solid footing. There’s a host of forces at work in our culture, and within our individual habits, dreams, and illusions, working against the survival of those values from one generation to the next.