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The Limits of Sprawl

Massive Influx of People is Pushing California
Toward a Meltdown

BY DANIEL B. WOOD
The San Jose Mercury News, March 7, 2000

CALIFORNIA'S century-and-a-half land rush is finally running out of land. Usable land, anyway.

 In a story with hard implications for the frontier American mindset -- the dream of a family home with a yard -- a soaring number of people in America's end-of-the-rainbow state say they have reached the end of the line, and their wits, over sprawl.

After a decade of population influx averaging 600,000 people per year, as many as 18 million more -- the current population of New York State -- are due before 2025.

 ``The key challenge facing this state for the next century will be growth,'' says California historian Kevin Starr. ``The remorseless devouring of landscape is pushing increasing multitudes toward a meltdown of rebellion over quality of life.''

 Beach to plain, valley to mountain, Mexico to Oregon, the evidence is overwhelming:

 In San Diego -- once the unsnarled backwater of California cities -- every leading candidate for city, county, and state office says the No. 1 voter issue is now traffic.

 Two hours north, a Los Angeles headline reads, ``Opponents urge judge to block largest development in Southern California history.''

 The Central Valley, provider of half the nation's fruits and vegetables, has seen an influx of 2 million residents over 20 years -- a development that shrank cropland by 500,000 acres. American Farmland Trust now ranks the valley as the most threatened farm region in the nation.

 Current projections are that the 400-mile-long by 50-mile-wide valley will grow from 5.5 million people to 12.5 million by 2040. If that forecast holds, 1 million farm acres will be lost and another 2.5 million acres will be put at risk, according to the Farmland Trust.

 ``Americans continue to think we have unlimited land resources, so we just keep expanding without noticing we are creating a future that is not sustainable,'' says Carol Whiteside of Great Valley Center, a private, nonpartisan group that is trying to unite diverse interests in the valley for sustainable growth. ``Unlike Europe, we don't have the same strong central governments that can act in the best interest of their publics.''

 With demand in coastal cities driving up housing costs, fists of development are encroaching into every empty corner of the state. Without a statewide body to oversee such growth, local officials follow their own needs and visions, often without regard to the big picture.

 One development model -- that of the mall and adjacent bedroom community -- is being replicated from inland valleys to the Sierra Nevadas. In many places, monster-size homes are consuming open space.

 The result, for many, is a kind of population indigestion.

 ``Many areas can no longer sustain a rich and nurturing institutional life,'' says Starr. ``We are moving beyond the ability of churches, synagogues and schools to provide organization, polity, community.''

 In the Sacramento region, hours of delay on freeways have grown 1,000 percent since 1986. According to Caltrans, the state transportation authority, 162,000 hours of delay from traffic in 1986 climbed to more than 1.8 million hours in 1998.

 Observers say a large-scale, statewide revolt is imminent, on the scale of 1978's Proposition 13, the tax-cutting measure that dominoed coast to coast.

 ``The new revolt will be draconian. It will force a debate that will reach back to Jefferson and Hamilton in the founding days of the republic over whether and how to live more densely,'' says Starr.

 The threats to farming, water quality, clean air and quality living have prompted several moves to help force regionwide solutions to state problems. Groups such as the Great Valley Center in the mid-Central Valley, the Fresno Business Council to the south, and Valley Vision Regional Action Partnership in Sacramento are building regionwide coalitions that include environmentalists and farmers, business people and residents. The idea is to pool resources and ideas, create long-term agendas, and open dialogue between antagonistic sectors.

 ``The job of organizations like ours is to draw attention to benefits of thinking regionally,'' says Kevin Eckery, president of Valley Vision, which draws representatives from each of the region's six counties. ``We look at open space, traffic issues, housing prices, jobs, income, schools in an effort to create a balanced community.''

 Such ventures will succeed to the degree that members recognize longer-term planning will help all sides achieve their goals.

 ``If one county or city comes to agreement to ... keep development in a downtown core and the neighboring county doesn't, you haven't solved your problem,'' says Debora Nankivill of Growth Alternatives Alliance, five organizations that came together in the Fresno region. ``People here are starting to change ideas and principles on a regionwide basis, realizing that if you get the blueprint right, all of your issues are helped. And if you don't, they are all hurt.''

 In the San Jose area, a group known as Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network is examining the problem of soaring housing prices -- one of the reasons sprawl has been pushed to areas of the Central Valley, San Bernardino and Monterey counties. The group is conducting an inventory of all urban land in Silicon Valley available for more affordable, denser housing.

 ``We feel if we can expedite more affordable housing here, that will ease the pressure to elbow into other areas of the state,'' says Ruben Barrales of Joint Venture.

 State officials are also increasingly realizing the folly of helter-skelter growth. Recognizing that California's 58 counties, 473 cities and many special districts ``create a confusing array of government,'' an Assembly commission last month announced a task force to examine the ``fundamental structure of governance in California.''

 State treasurer Phil Angelides, who has 15 years' experience in real estate development, is working to identify the point at which California's economic strength will be jeopardized by environmental degradation -- resulting in the exodus of businesses. ``This state is going to be tested in the near future as never before,'' he says. ``If we continue to grow the way we are, consuming land without regional planning, we will injure ourselves, not only environmentally but also economically.''

 Others argue that California's current uproar over sprawl is related to economic cycles of boom and recession, and will eventually abate.

 ``The talk about pollution, congestion, housing that is not affordable reflects the state's current peak business cycle, in which everything is running ahead of the state's ability to grow,'' says Michael Dardia of the California Policy Institute. An economic slowdown, he says, will allow the supply of housing, commercial space, roads, and infrastructure to catch up with demand -- without resulting in cries of a lost utopia.

 ``The demonization of suburbs is a combination of old anti-growth arguments and the political agendas of people who have already moved in and want to pull up the ladder,'' says Dardia. ``There is nothing magical about farming, which is also resource intensive. . . . The other side of this debate is that if you don't allow growth, nothing is affordable.''


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