- a special report for
- (released in 2004)
The Friends of the San Juans are an interesting study in community politics. According to a recent mailer, the Friends of the San Juans (FSJ) have about 400 members. The population of SJC is 14000. Even if the entire 400 members lived in-county (do they?) this is less than 3% of the county total. As small as this current number is, it's up 40% from two years ago. These are not grass-roots numbers. It would appear that the Friends have parlayed a relatively small membership-base into an influential and active voice on matters of land use policy or debate.
The presence and continuing influence of FSJ makes several questions about this organization's origins relevant:
Friends took its' origin from a small, landed portion of the community with similar demographic and professional backgrounds. Its' rhetorical justification is a mixture of noblesse oblige, an insistence on collective authority and an almost naive belief in planning. Their program, as revealed so far, relies on a tendency to negate property rights in favor of intensive regulation and oversight with the avowed purpose of managing and directing development and growth.
An undiscussed problem with the FSJ brand of protection lies in the long-term consequences, the effects of which can already be seen taking hold in rising prices for land, high development costs, and demographic shifting. Perhaps one reason Friends are so uncompromising on the guesthouse issue is that a strong, underlying streak of self-interest blinds its' leadership to reasonable but personally unpalatable solutions.
Current FSJ policy favors limited development and massive oversight as well as strong support for affordable housing (AH) as the way to protect "our" community. The plural pronoun reveals another factor of Friends' policy. It's their way of indicating that property rights in SJC must invariably be trumped by areas of "public concern".
What is particularly disturbing with the Friends guesthouse stance is the zeal with which they now identify protecting our islands with a denial of property rights and with gross interference into the economic and financial lives of SJC citizens.
By refusing to see guesthouses as, familial and social structures (and as valid elements of financial planning) they persist in viewing them only by standards of density and development, even though it is patently obvious that every lot won't have a guest house and every guesthouse will not become a rental, transient or otherwise. Their stance denies people a basic right to build their homes and plan the futures that they think are best for them. The idea that a guesthouse could provide all manner of flexible housing or accommodate live-in home-care for the elderly, or create a future refuge for aging family members makes no difference to their trumped up density numbers.
Since the FSJ has both the will and the finances to pursue their vision of this county's future, what about the goals and needs of the other 97% of island residents that aren't members? What happens if their needs run counter to FSJ policy?
These aren't just rhetorical questions; they concern some of the most basic structures of the Islands' social/economic web. What are the long-term consequences to the community from a mix of pro-regulatory, anti-growth policy that includes a healthy dose of fuzzy socialism and cascaded self-interest?
Before we calculate the price of protection, we should take a brief look into the role of language in the political process. Finding the right description for a cause or action is always the first step on the road to success.
More than anything else "growth" means having other people move here. But "managing" growth, especially if it is the "unrestrained" type, sounds a lot more tolerant and legal than advocating exclusion does.
When politicians or interest groups talk about protecting "our rural character" they also speak in code. First off, there is that reflexive use of the collective pronoun again, which we will ignore to concentrate on "rural character".
This rural character is not about apple orchards and strawberry farms anymore, it's about rural vistas and open space; commonly called the view. The real anathema is overcrowding, too many houses. Minimizing build-out and reduction of the dreaded density are major goals.
When you look at Island politics, local amenities and demographics, it might be more accurate to describe our real character as "country suburban" rather than "rural". One revealing test is to see where a communities' income is derived. Is it grown locally or brought in from the outside? A classic feature of suburban economy is that most of the dollars that circulate locally are earned somewhere else,
A test: Go to a real rural area, somewhere outside the I-5 corridor, perhaps east of the mountains. See if they have a noise ordinance. Ask about renting a guesthouse too while sipping Chablis in the local bistro.
The Price of Protection
There are three basic strategies by which land and land use are controlled and regulated: exclusivity, price and planning.
Exclusivity can limit access, usage or sale. Exclusivity can result from private or public ownership or through other legal and regulatory means.
Price is a natural market mechanism that protects rare or limited resources from excessive demand. Price is the practical expression of value or perceived worth. The higher the demand for something, the higher its' market price will rise.
Planners talk about controlling and directing growth, which they certainly do, but they rarely talk about unintended consequences, which they also regularly produce. It is also important to recognize that planning is not intended to stop or even slow growth, but merely to format it. All that planning can do is simply sanction some forms of growth and penalize others.
Planning is implemented through regulation. Regulations might best be defined as "arbitrary judgments that carry the force of law". Regulation is currently a favorite means to circumvent the normal protections of private property. Controlling land use through regulation can have the same effect as outright appropriation but is a much cheaper and less overt way to achieve the same ends.
Two key Acronyms
When dealing with land planning issues you need to remember that two simple concepts underlie much of the high-sounding verbiage. To understand what lies behind a large part of protective planning you need only to know the acronyms NIMBY (not in my backyard!) and CDAM (close door after me!). To pretend that this is not the case is to deny human nature, but it is equally naive to expect that these ideas –which exist as subtext- will be overtly or openly expressed.
The "Vineyard" effect
If one theme dominates the "protect our island" ethos it is hostility towards development, especially residential expansion. Most business and commercial activity is regulated too. Note that none of this really slows development -which most people feel is unchecked - but merely skews it by changing who can play in our elysian fields.
Paradoxically the very means we use to protect the views we all love helps insure a weak local economy that subsists largely on real estate sales, second homes and tourism. County officials and organizations pay lip service to "better jobs" and similar rhetoric, but the official and unofficially sanctioned policies of this County tell a different story. Right now the Islands have two economic themes, Real Estate and Tourism, and given the current state of affairs, this is unlikely to change.
Significantly, our local economy does not generate most of the income earned in SJC. Figures show that the leading source of income here is from investments. For one segment of the local populace at least, preservation of land values and open space are probably more important than either jobs or housing.
Pretending that SJC won't turn out
to be Martha's Vineyard or Nantucket is all well and good, but the truth
is that we are more than half the way there already. And with the same
policies and similar dynamics in place, such confidence seems misplaced.
Effects of limiting growth by planning
Protection of open space carries a cost in the same way that developing land does, but payment is a different currency. When people mention the slow shift they see towards wealth in Island society they rarely mention the part that land use restrictions play in it. Some of the effects we see locally include:
Problems with Affordable Housing
AH is too broad a subject to deal with in detail here. The issue as currently understood has roots far beyond island economics, but planning and land use regulation do play a part in making lower cost housing expensive to produce in SJC.
Here are some other aspects of AH that are worth thinking about:
Re-statement of land use policy:
A strict protectionist scheme does not benefit all Islanders equally, except when it comes to preserving views and status quo. In an economic sense those that own land or have income from outside the local economy, or who have secured subsidized living arrangements fare better than growing families, workers and service people dependent on local wages. The days when SJC was a haven for working folks and alternative life styles are coming to a close.
In light of everything we've discussed so far, let's see if we can re-state the basic Friends' land use policy a little more candidly:
"We can best preserve our rural character (wink, wink) by strict and invasive control of building and development which will encourage high land prices and development costs.
"We realize an economy based on real estate sales, tourism and services will be rather weak and limited, but look at the alternatives. Between investments for us, and the combined sales and property tax revenue for the county, we've covered the important bases.
"Besides, we support the creation an entire class of subsidized families and workers to be housed mostly in designated areas and structures."
Cynical or not, the above statement accurately reflects a certain reality about Island life: namely that there is a common interest among several different elements of island society to sustain current policy.
SJC Socio-economic Strata
Exceptions exist, but in large part SJC landowners, especially residential and retirement ones, want the open vistas and uncluttered views that come with tight zoning and land use regulation. By supporting AH they can keep their views with a clear conscience. New neighbors are not always welcome because in addition to change, they usually bring the two-edged sword of rising land values. For some large holders this can precipitate a tax-induced sale and break-up.
Some local businesses create their own employee housing but many do not. Workers with affordable housing do not have the same wage requirement pressure that unsupported workers do. Subsidized home ownership or rental can be an important factor that helps key employees remain on-island. The existence of AH helps to reduce pressures to raise local wage levels.
SJC has a high percentage of well-off retirees who are both land and homeowners. A slow rise in land values makes the retirement home into an appreciating asset, which is good, but too fast a rise can create a large tax burden so it's a delicate balance.
Retiree income is usually not island generated.
As long as land sells, the real estate industry will do well. Higher land values translate into higher commissions. Greater regulation has some effect on sales but not very much; it mostly just shifts the available pool of players into higher income brackets. The biggest issue facing land sales and development will be water development.
Higher land prices usually result in larger houses and larger scale development as a way to compensate for increased costs.
Planning is not a roadblock to development- it's the roadmap. For instance, savvy developers find that units of AH are useful bargaining chips in environmental/land use negotiations and that they can even be used to increase density. Some areas are protected, but if you live in or near a designated development area you may find the idea of sacrificing our urban zones to maintain suburban inviolability may be a devils' bargain.
Government funded projects are especially welcome when the private market becomes tight. Due to their larger scale and complexity, AH projects mainly provide work for larger construction firms, but some local trickle-down occurs.
State clients (planners, consultants, architects etc)
Complex land-use regulation and AH projects generate work for all sorts of experts and consultants.
Many environmental groups have strong opinions about housing and land use that put them in favor of all-inclusive planning and affordable housing. Some members of this sector are especially hostile to the legal status of private property.
We all benefit from open views but the economic blessings -and consequences- of current policy are less evenly distributed. If the history of the Atlantic Coastal islands is any indication, we can expect rising land prices and taxes to continue shifting population demographics towards wealth and age, and to maintain the economic reliance on tourism and service. Earlier populations may become marginalized or extinct. Working families especially, can't afford to stay.
Current policies can only accentuate this process. The pressures we feel on these islands are the result of large-scale economic, demographic and social trends. Since the causes are beyond their control, protectionists inevitably concentrate on legal and regulatory changes at the local level.
Friends therefore presents an interesting paradox: while claiming to work for the preservation of island life, they have managed to become a major force in reshaping our social, political and economic lives. This too is an uncounted cost of view protection.
The rigid controls and broad categorizations of large scale planning are not a good fit with island realities. Finding a more flexible approach to land use, one that recognizes the individual merits of each case in light of a wider community standard than density, density, and more density will be a large step in the right direction.
The more we abandon respect for private property in a war on development and the less we recognize that we are individuals with individual destinies to work out, the more we can expect the breakdown of civil process -neighbor suing neighbor- to increase.
Solutions to the question of growth are not easy ones. We need to be honest about the effects of certain policy directions. Those that advocate protectionist policies most vociferously are those that will be hurt least by their final outcome.
Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard and Block Island have been subject to strict zoning and land use regulation for quite some time with the same sorts of strategies that Friends appear to advocate for SJC. If you think that Aspen doesn't have a planning department, guess again. Yet all these communities have become, increasingly, enclaves for the wealthy or elite.
Friends have appointed themselves as stewards of the San Juan Islands, but to honestly fulfill that role they need to look for the roots of self-interest in their unyielding policy stance. The Islands are currently moving in a direction that not all residents can follow. Whether our Friends have realistically addressed this issue is worth asking.
It is difficult to believe that the policy-makers of Friends are unaware of the long-term consequences of their actions. It is more likely that they find it in their interests to let sleeping dogs lie. Citizens who want to preserve their own lives in addition to the view might just want to start barking.