Letter: Smart Growth and the Coastside

Letter to the editor

By on Sun, September 17, 2006

"[Smart Growth] encourages concentrated growth in areas such as Half Moon Bay and the urban Midcoast, in order to preserve the rural and open areas surrounding us"

Smart Growth is a land use philosophy whose central tenet can be expressed in the following syllogism:

  • Population growth and increased development are inevitable;
  • Urban sprawl into rural and undeveloped areas is undesirable;
  • Therefore, growth and development should be channeled into already urbanized areas.

That’s a simplification, almost worthy of Smart Growth for Dummies, but stripping the theory to its bones makes it easier to see how Smart Growth would apply to the Coastside.  Fasten your seatbelts, because this politically progressive philosophy actually encourages concentrated growth in areas such as Half Moon Bay and the urban Midcoast, in order to preserve the rural and open areas surrounding us, and enhance our community.  Here are some general Smart Growth principles, applied to the Coastside:

1. DON’T DISCOURAGE COASTSIDE URBAN GROWTH.  Smart Growth takes a dim view of urban growth rate limits, such as Measure D, and lot reduction schemes, like the one the Coastal Commission negotiated into the Ailanto settlement agreement.  As the Greenbelt Alliance recently observed, limiting the rate of urban growth, or reducing urban buildout potential, "can push development elsewhere, into other cities and out onto farm and other natural areas."  James Kunstler wrote in his highly regarded THE GEOGRAPHY OF NOWHERE: "The problem with the ‘no growth’ approach…is that the pressure doesn’t go away; if you don’t make some kind of provision for growth in the form of good planning, development just leapfrogs farther out into the hinterlands, resulting in longer commutes and more mindless sprawl."

2. SYSTEMATICALLY PLAN FUTURE RESIDENTIAL DEVELOPMENT.  As it stands, the Coastside takes a reactive approach to planned development.  A developer makes a proposal, and the community reacts.  Smart Growth prescribes that we proactively chart out future development according to the infrastructural needs of the community, and approach owners of large, empty urban-zoned tracts with a plan for future development, along with the exactions that the public requires in return.  This town-planning approach squarely faces the reality that public funding for large-scale improvements is rapidly shrinking, so that without private financing, our community simply won’t have the basic amenities other areas enjoy.

3. WORK WHERE YOU LIVE.  The vibrancy of a small community like the Coastside is primarily determined by the health of its local economy.  Right now we have an economy based on tourism, local services, and vestiges of agriculture and maritime, with few high-paying jobs.  For that reason most household breadwinners commute over the hill, the majority in the high-tech field.  The Coastside, by redeveloping blighted areas in central Half Moon Bay and Princeton, could produce enough high-tech jobs to slash local commuter traffic over 92 and 1.  High-tech is generally easy on the environment, and great for our tax base and ancillary businesses.  Bringing high-tech to the Coastside is key to our future success as a community.

4. POLITICAL BALKANIZATION IS INIMICAL TO SMART GROWTH.  Our community is unnecessarily divided into separate political jurisdictions, a setup that encourages narrow-based decisionmaking.  Half Moon Bay and the Midcoast should be one municipality, as they are one community.  We should not have two fire districts, three sewerage districts and two water districts for the Coastside.  Our special districts should be consolidated in the interests of coherent, community-wide planning.  For example, CCWD’s and MWSD’s water systems should be fully integrated, and connected at the Devil’s Slide tunnel with NCCWD.  This would complete a water supply loop, from Crystal Springs over 92 on the one side, to Pacifica on the other, giving the Coastside the fullest fail-safes for emergency water supply.
5. REWRITE PLANNING POLICY TO ENCOURAGE INTEGRATED (MIXED USE) ZONING.  Our current regulations segregate types of land use (residential, retail/commercial, office, public, etc.) into separate zones, connectable only by car.  We can revive traditional, mixed-use zoning by redeveloping eyesores such as the lamentable strip development in the 92/Main/1 corridor.  That area could be transformed into a cultural destination, with high-tech enclaves, public facilities, buildings with lower-story retail/commercial and upper-story residences and offices, and underground parking to maximize usable above-ground space.

6. PROVIDE FOR PUBLIC SAFETY, ESPECIALLY ON THE ROADWAYS.  Every neighborhood on the Coastside should have safe vehicular and pedestrian access onto and across Highway 1.  This means stoplights at 2nd Street in Montara, California Avenue in Moss Beach, and intermediate between Frenchman’s Creek and Main Street in HMB.  Speed limits on 1 through the urbanized areas should be reduced to 35 MPH.  Left-turn lanes should be provided wherever necessary to ensure that a car is never standing in a traffic lane while waiting to turn left.  There is no entitlement to a nonstop, high-speed commute through the Coastside at the expense of public safety.

7. PLAN FOR PREDICTABLE IMPACTS ON THE COMMUNITY.  For the Coastside, two predictable future trends are increased visitor traffic, and the effects of global warming.  Visitor traffic can be accommodated by improving roadway conditions and circulation patterns, including parking.  Global warming will have two early effects on us, first by breaking up the fog season (thus attracting more tourism), and second by raising sea levels.  After the tunnel, the next big change to Highway 1 will be its rerouting inland of Surfer’s Beach, where it will wash away in the years to come.  Harbor breakwaters, which have already slumped and coved over the years, will need to be built up.  Any usable riprap from the tunnel excavation should be dropped at Princeton, instead of trucked over the hill.  Smartly anticipating future megatrends will minimize their negative impacts on our community.

8. THE COASTAL COMMISSION DOES NOT PRACTICE SMART GROWTH.  Land use in our community is governed by an anti-growth state agency that has de facto veto power over local coastal development decisions.  The Coastal Act, Coastal Commission and our Local Coastal Programs were established by borrowing Smart Growth concepts and language from legislation passed in Oregon, but the California translation subverts the Oregon model in two important ways.  First, it is applied only to the coastal zone (within five miles of the ocean), not the entire state, as Oregon did, where all areas are subject to similar development guidelines.  Second,  the Oregon legislation regulates how growth will occur, without taking a position for or against overall growth.  On the other hand, our Commission-certified Local Coastal Programs evince an anti-growth ideology, with politically backward locutions that anthropomorphize infrastructure as "growth-inducing."  All growth is treated like a cancer, and because the Commission’s mandate is parochial, with no corresponding Inland Commission to protect the rest of the state, a glaring double standard has emerged.  Smart Growth recognizes that the Commission’s anti-growth, non-holistic provincialism has the effect of causing overdevelopment of the less-protected inland areas, especially the Central Valley, accelerating the destruction of the most expansive wetlands in the western U. S.

9. ANTI-GROWTH POLICIES DEGRADE A COMMUNITY’S QUALITY OF LIFE.  Communities with political forces that successfully choke off growth experience a predictable diminution to their quality of life.  Infrastructure suffers in a variety of ways: schools fall behind the times, neglected roads become unsafe and congested, once-thriving small towns become mere bedroom communities for lack of a local economy, public amenities such as cultural centers or recreation facilities become unaffordable.  In other words, no-growth communities experience cultural impoverishment.  The lack of quality education and opportunities ensures a downwardly-mobile community, defined as a population where the children do not (on average) achieve the same level of education as their parents.  Finally, a paranoid political atmosphere that opposes change breaks down the feelings of trust and togetherness that would otherwise flourish in a small community like the Coastside.  We lose the Mayberry effect.

10. THE KEY TO SMART GROWTH IS SMART POLITICAL LEADERSHIP.  Many people in our community – elected officials, concerned citizens, public-minded organizations – realize that the Coastside can and must be improved, and work hard to do so.  Most of us have learned from experience that a no- growth philosophy is utopian and ultimately backfires: you still get the inevitable growth, only without the public improvements that could otherwise accompany a planned growth that the community embraces.  The shortest path to reviving our community is to develop an informed electorate, united around basic principles, supporting a political leadership that puts our consensus into action.

Don Bacon