Deconstructing Dr. Larimer’s wing-nut dog-whistle
Comments in italics are by Coastsider
Jim Larimer’s recent column in the Half Moon Bay Review is nearly incomprehensible if you don’t speak the secret language of property rights extremists. In it, he tries to convince us that the city of Half Moon Bay should let Chop Keenan develop Beachwood, rather than pay they settlement they (cynically, yet foolishly) agreed to. He fails to make his case.
He also uses innuendo and falsehoods to try and draw a line between what he calls "no-growthers" (anyone who doesn’t agree with his plans for the Coastside) and environmentally-minded Coastsiders (who are more than half the population).
Let’s take a look at his argument. You can mouse over the highlighted phrases for more detail if you like. I apologize in advance for the length of this deconstruction, but Mr. Larimer’s essay is full of rich material. The indented material includes his entire piece, so nothing was taken out of context.
The U.S. District Court for Northern California ruled in 2007 that the city had taken the Beachwood property by first flooding it and then by declaring it a wetland [The federal judge did not say the wetland determination was a taking]. The value taken from the property owner was established by the court to be the value added to the property if had it been fully developed as originally planned [The valuation was nuts, but it’s no longer at issue].
On March 27, 2008, the city entered into an agreement with the property owner to provide him with a permit to develop the property by June 30 of this year or to buy it at a loss-of-value price of $18 million. If they are unable to pay in full by Aug. 29, the city will owe the property owner $19.9 million plus interest on any remaining unpaid debt until it is paid in full. A bond to raise the cash to pay this debt in full by Aug. 29 will require substantial principal and interest payments to be paid from property taxes for many years to come and will limit the services that would otherwise be funded by our property taxes.
The city could act to restore the full value of the property by allowing the improperly installed storm sewer to be fixed and by additionally providing the owner with a building permit. The city would be required to confess its error in ruling that the property is a wetland [There is no evidence that this was ever an option]. No action to admit this error or to re-examine the process that made it has been taken by the city. The most likely outcome now is that the city will purchase this land in accordance with the 2008 agreement.
Mr. Larimer repeats a familiar demand: "Rewrite/reinterpret/ignore the city’s definition of wetland and let the building begin! We need the tax revenue!". There is no evidence that this is an option at Beachwood, and no evidence that it would satisfy the settlement.
We’ll discuss his tax-roll foolishness in a moment.
The act of purchasing the property acknowledges that it is a wetland unsuitable for almost any development [The property was always a wetland. That’s why they drained it]. It will be a vacant lot, an eyesore [In Mr. Larimer’s eyes, from the highway, at 45mph.] in perpetuity, sandwiched between two housing developments on similar properties. The only winner if this happens will be the no-growth political faction [No such faction exists.] whose political leadership on previous city councils created this disaster by ignoring the reason the property became flooded and then denying a permit to develop it [That’s not an option]. Beachwood is an example of their many victories in controlling growth in our community.
In other words, it’s the city’s fault for not ignoring the law at the request of a powerful developer. Not even Judge Walker went that far.
Is Beachwood an "eyesore"? I’ve walked the ground at Beachwood, and once you go in about 100 feet, beyond the highway noise, it’s really pretty nice. The open space blends into the hillside—where Mr. Larimer wants to build even more houses and a bypass—in a seamless environment. He’s right that it’s kind of homely from the highway, but it’s a bad idea to plan our communities to be most pleasing when viewed from a moving car.
Is a uniform wall of single-family homes (and their six-foot fences) along Highway 1 is more beautiful than a glimpse our hillsides and natural scrub?
Mr. Larimer keeps referring to some shadowy "no growth faction", imputing multiple strawman motives to them. Who are they? What is his evidence that they exist? He offers us nothing, only their supposed motives and mysterious misdeeds.
The city does not own a single soccer or baseball field, basketball court, skateboard park, picnic bench or barbecue anywhere. Playgrounds for children are scarce to non-existent. We [Mr. Larimer does not live in Half Moon Bay. Nor do I.] will soon own two large 20-acre vacant lots neither suitable as a park or for community-serving facilities [Actually, one of those parcels is ideal for picnics, barbecues, and playgrounds]. A patch quilt of vacant fallow land will characterize this community for decades; all of it removed from the tax roles [sic] and maintained by our [Mr. Larimer still does not live in Half Moon Bay.] dwindling property tax dollars. [He can thank his Republican and property rightist political allies for this admittedly serious problem.]
The previous, moderate city council majority bought land for a planned park, but their opponents (and Mr. Larimer’s allies) killed the park plans for a short-term political advantage. And then went on to sign a settlement that will make the city the proud owners of Beachwood. So, who does he blame for the fact that the city will soon own these two vacant lots? That’s right: the "no-growthers".
His argument that open space adds nothing to the tax rolls is silly. Open space also creates little demand for police, fire, library, road, water, sewer, and other services.
No city can grow its way into balance. California cities of all sizes are running out of money.
The no-growth faction [Who?] has aligned itself with environmental and open space causes [Scary-sounding nonsense]. Their environmental record is, however, abysmal. Their open space agenda is to shrink urban areas and not to improve them despite [Mr. Larimer’s definition of "improve" is apparently whatever building a property owner deems most profitable.] the need for balanced [i.e. large-scale] development to serve a growing population [A self-fulfilling prophesy]
There are several layers of vague nonsense here. The mythical "no-growth faction" "aligned itself" with "environmental causes", but has "an abysmal environmental record". I’m not sure what any of that means, but those no-growthers sound really sneaky. Like Communist infiltrators or something.
But he seems to be saying that real environmentalists support big-money infrastructure projects in stream clearing, pipeline laying, sewer plant expanding, and water recycling designed to support (or require) more houses—not intended to sustain the current local population or our environment.
Mr. Larimer doesn’t say what he means by "balanced development" and "improvement", so how can we know who’s against them or why?
And which growing population is he referring to? The population of the Coastside grows at exactly the rate of housing development.
They [Who?] opposed expanding the sewer plant to stop polluting the ocean. Our sewer infrastructure remains inadequate, but the battle over even how to fix this problem continues [How we fix our sewer system is critical question. Mr. Larimer says we should not ask the question]. They champion water recycling only if the potable water offset produced by recycling will not be used to serve human needs [We already have enough water to meet our human needs. It’s the economic needs of future developments that Mr. Larimer is speaking of here]. The no growth faction has opposed new schools [False. There was a disagreement about where to put the school.], roads [in wetlands], water system improvements [Designed to serve development interests.], a Boys and Girls Club [Tied to the school that was tied to a huge new development.], even people serving parks [False on its face.], as "growth inducing [Illegal, actually]." That they have been successful in their efforts to limit individual rights [As opposed to no limits on individual rights?] and to prevent community-serving development [Hand-waving nonsense.] cannot be denied.
No one opposes improving the sewer system’s performance in wet weather. But not everyone agrees how to do it. So, of course, there’s a "battle over even how to fix this problem". When was it a bad thing to offer a better solution to a problem?
Despite what Mr. Larimer implies, we have plenty of water to "serve human needs". But Mr. Larimer wants to use our recycled water to serve the economic needs of future developments.
The rest of this stuff is a litany of falsehoods we’ve all heard before. Mouse over the highlights for more information.
Sadly, none of these big, failed plans that Mr. Larimer and his allies dredge up from time to time was stopped by any local activist. All were stopped or limited by the state, because the developers didn’t follow the law.
The rights of groups and the rights of individuals have been a tension within our democracy since it’s founding. The Declaration of Independence asserts that there are "certain unalienable Rights." Some of these rights were enumerated in the Bill of Rights within our Constitution. The U.S. District Court ruled that the city had taken private property without compensation [By building and poorly maintaining drains in a existing wetland.], a Fifth Amendment violation, and now must pay the owner for what they have taken.
Suddenly, the piece takes a mysterious right turn into the bushes, raising a false tension between the rights of unnamed "groups" and those of individuals. The real issue has always been balancing the rights of the people, through our democratically-elected elected governments, with those of the individual. Before we learned to strike that balance, life was famously solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.
Only property rights extremists believe that environmental laws are a violation of Fifth Amendment rights. The Fifth Amendment’s prohibition against "taking" is an important right. But the Supreme Court has ruled that the right is not absolute and that zoning and environmental law do not necessarily violate that right. In Beachwood, even Judge Walker was unwilling to say that the "taking" was the wetlands designation. He said it was poor drainage.
The no-growth faction believes that their collective rights trump individual rights [Strawman 1]. They also appear to believe that their policies are consistent with a "natural order" required to protect the environment [Strawman 2] despite their spotty record regarding environmental husbandry [Assumes facts not in evidence, as they say on Law & Order].
Mr. Larimer offers no proof that any unspecified "no-growth faction" believes their collective rights trump individual rights.
The Coastal Act, environmental and wetland laws, and local zoning are utterly consistent with the Fifth Amendment. They balance the rights of the community with those of the individual.
The people that Mr. Larimer wants us to fear and hate have had a simple standard: observe the law when developing land.
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in the Harvard Law Review in 1918 on the topic of "natural law" that " [A] right is only the hypostasis (i.e., essence) of a prophecy - the imagination of a substance supporting the fact that the public force will be brought to bear upon those who do things to contravene it ..." We naively think of rights as privileges given to individuals to act freely as if these rights were ordained by some higher authority or principle [Strawman 3]. Rights are, as Holmes said, nothing more than the political actions that achieve a goal, in this case preventing growth [that’s quite a leap!].
Rights are nothing more than rules manufactured by men to maintain order and commerce in civil society [In other words, "rights" were established in our Constitution to "maintain order and commerce"]. Rights are the rules by which we have agreed to govern ourselves. How Beachwood will be resolved is of practical significance to this community and not necessarily consistent with some higher sense of right and wrong or natural order [i.e. when money is at stake the law takes a back seat].
So, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison proposed the Bill of Rights for the purpose of "maintaining order and commerce"? Really?
This appeal to "practical significance" implies that when money is at stake, that we should throw the law out the window. This is another name for anarchy.
What is at stake on June 30 is how our community will settle issues of individual rights as opposed to group rights [That was settled a while ago]. If we ultimately purchase the Beachwood property, we will have established a new rule that permits the taking of private property through changes in zoning [Not according to the Supreme Court]. This will be the basis for many more court actions enforcing another and higher rule of law that when government takes private property it must compensate the owner [But not, says the Supreme Court, for the value of whatever project will net the most cash]. How many more vacant lots will the city purchase before this new rule is rescinded?
The idea that the stakes in Beachwood are "individual rights as opposed to group rights" and that the Fifth Amendment will guard us from this folly is a very limited vision of community. It is also a dog-whistle to property rights extremists who believe that the mere act of zoning—let alone environmental protection or coastal access—is a violation of their Constitutional rights.
What is at stake is whether the law is for sale. If Half Moon Bay follows Mr. Larimer’s prescription by ignoring the law when confronted with a lawsuit or the displeasure of the powerful, they might as well declare themselves an open city.