Developer Bill Gallaher went public last week, voicing resentments that have been eating at the local business community for a long time. In an interview with Staff Writer Kevin McCallum, Gallaher said he was forced to lay off half his local work force – not because of a bad economy but because of delays imposed by the Santa Rosa city planning process.
“We’re tired of it,” he declared, “We’re tired of being kicked in the teeth.”
If you listened closely, you could hear the cheers of business people – and less polite sounds from legions of folks with an abiding distrust of real estate interests.
Welcome to Sonoma County. This particular conflict has defined local politics for decades.
Once upon a time, there was a reason. Between 1960 and 1990, the welcome mat was out for sprawl development. Local communities still live with the baggage – traffic congestion, the loss of farmlands, the high cost of public services.
But time and circumstances change, even if our politics is stuck in the past.
With controls in place to limit new development, it ought to be time for a new conversation. It ought to be time to ask whether the public interest is served when every kind of economic activity finds itself mired in neighborhood politics and government bureaucracy.
A few years ago, when the economy was still vibrant, we could pretend that there weren’t costs associated with controversies that dragged on for years.
But the economy isn’t humming now. Maybe you noticed – the vacant storefronts, the rising unemployment rate (10.2 percent and counting), the declining tax revenues, the cuts in education and health care.
In the last decades of the 20th century, it was a familiar story: People arrived, found a job, bought a house and joined an organization devoted to making it more difficult to create jobs and build houses.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the folks who opposed uncontrolled growth made Sonoma County a better place to live. Voters and elected officials responded with growth limits, a world-class open space agency, urban boundaries and a county General Plan that prevents the destruction of farmlands.
But, even with permanent protections in place, many retain their reflexive opposition to any sort of economic development.
Their cynicism was understandable when the population was growing by more than 8 percent a year – a burden beyond the carrying capacity of the environment and of the public treasury.
But now the population is growing by a fraction of one percent a year – 1.8 percent over eight years.
And many young people are fleeing to other towns, where jobs are plentiful and houses are affordable.
As a county, we are getting older, left to worry whether there will be an adequate work force to pay taxes, maintain businesses and otherwise provide the services we need when we need them. Have you tried to find a doctor lately?
The problem is, our political interest groups – the folks who fought the battles of the 1970s and 1980s – continue to see the world in black and white. Pave it over, or build nothing at all.
And, in the shouting that dominates the public arena, these groups don’t play well together. They don’t trust each other – which means they don’t know how to find the middle ground where we protect the quality of life and provide opportunities for future generations.
Since developers’ complaints about local government are nothing new, the timing of Gallaher’s protest may be seen an attempt to take advantage of a faltering economy. His critics say he faces delays because his recent projects present special problems.
Still, who believes that it should take five years (or more) to adequately study a project in an area already developed?
Whatever the merits of Gallaher’s complaints, the politics is what it is: People in places like Fountaingrove and Oakmont oppose new projects in their backyards, cheerfully oblivious to the irony. We live in a place in which folks live on hilltops and decry hilltop development.
Two days after Gallaher’s lament, Staff Writer Kerry Benefield reported the resignation of long-time city planner Wayne Goldberg. Over the years, he became a lightning rod for complaints about the city bureaucracy.
The last time I looked, there was a seven-member City Council, a Planning Commission, a city manager and several hundred other city employees. But, somehow, it was always Goldberg who was to blame.
What was – and is – not in doubt is that Santa Rosa City Hall carries a certain reputation. Whether you want to build a house, operate a downtown delicatessen or sell a slice of pizza on Fourth Street, the large office complex at the corner of Santa Rosa Avenue and Sonoma Avenue seems to occupy a different time continuum. Time slows down at City Hall.
We need to wake up. We should never approve development for development’s sake, but neither should we acquiesce to the politics of obstruction. It’s not smart, and it’s not fair.
Now more than ever, we should understand that the old politics won’t improve the quality of life. It will only lead to drift and stagnation.
Note to Sonoma County political activists: It isn’t 1990 anymore. It’s 2009.