Know how we grow

How much open space can we afford to lose?

by William Daugherty
an Diego County is one of the most pro-development counties in the nation. Our city councils, city and county ordinances, chambers of commerce, and state representatives and senators are pro-development. Anything that inhibits or constrains development is subject to ridicule.

In response to an initiative action being pursued by a community group, one chamber of commerce director made the statement, "This city will develop or this city will die," inferring that opposition to a proposed development was a slow-growth mentality that would cause the city to lose essential revenue, deprive construction workers of jobs, and eventually lead to a stagnant, declining economy.

Is this a true assessment? Is population growth synonymous with economic growth? Does a city make money on the fees it charges for low density residential development? Are construction jobs critical to our long-term economic well-being?

According to the latest San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) economic study, although the population of the county has increased since 1989, our economy has decreased to what it was in the mid-1970s. This is the result of the massive loss of high-end aerospace and defense sector technological and manufacturing jobs at the end of the Cold War. These positions have been replaced with low salary, service sector positions.

Depending upon the skill level, it takes about four to six service sector jobs to equal the salary lost by one engineer or manufacturing position.

Therefore, population increases are not an indication of prosperity. Rather, economic prosperity is tied to developing a dynamic, advanced technology and an industrial manufacturing business base to support the service sector. The term dynamic is used to indicate a changing, non-static mix of business and enterprises. As incentives for such businesses to locate in the community, cities must actively pursue new businesses, create aesthetic industrial parks, environmentally attractive communities, and reduce the costs of their bureaucracy in order to reduce business taxes and fees.

As far as cities making money from development fees, as Bank of America, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Syracuse University have all found, in the long run cities lose money on low-density residential developments because infrastructure costs for maintenance, repair and replacement exceed tax and fee revenue.

Although construction wages contribute to the local and regional economy, they are of low to medium wage scale. In fact, expenditures for recreation far exceed both development fees and construction wages as contributors to the local economy.

Although all communities require balanced residential, commercial and industrial development, greater long-term economic value to the community is provided by open space, greenways, waterways, parks and other recreational facilities, compared with wall-to-wall urban development.

We have lost over 90 percent of our open space habitat and wetlands to urban development. We must begin to think of expansion of these valuable assets, rather than how much more can we afford to lose.

Bill Daugherty is the President of Buena Vista Audubon. This article appeared originally in their newsletter the Lagoon Flyer