Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Red Barn: Sometimes a Compromise Isn’t the Right Answer (Part 1)

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.

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 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 (

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