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Will California Limit Growth or Choke?

By James O. Goldsborough
The San Diego Union Tribune, February 21, 2000

California's population is growing too fast for its own good. People aren't paying attention because the good times are rolling, but eventually they will notice.

Politicians ignore the issue. In the current election, as in previous ones, they chatter about more jobs, faster growth and bigger highways as though California were still in the 1950s, with a comfy population of 12 million, water to spare and highways as rare as traffic jams.

The development of California's open spaces goes on unabated. The San Diego region has new developments springing up along its highways like mushrooms, from Temecula to the Mexican border. Santa Clara County, home to Silicon Valley, is so built out people are commuting from the San Joaquin Valley, hours away.

Los Angeles County has just approved its largest development ever, in the hills of Santa Clarita, near Ventura County, which isn't happy about it. Ventura decided years ago not to become another Los Angeles, and has enacted strict anti-growth laws.

The state Attorney General's Office, joining with Ventura County and the local water district, is trying to slow down the Newhall Ranch development, and the case will be heard next month in Bakersfield. The plaintiffs argue that the development would wipe out protected plant and animal species, and that there is not enough water for 70,000 more Angelenos with lawns to water and pools to fill.

Were California a nation, as its area and population justify, it would have stopped this nonsense years ago. Nations protect their borders, regulate their immigration and seek balance among population, resources and infrastructure. America's 50 states can't do that. Two centuries ago, the Founding Fathers could not have foreseen the tilt toward the West.

In land area, California is only a sixth smaller than Spain, but will equal Spain's population (39 million) this decade. Whereas Spain is not growing, California's population (34 million legal) is projected at 52 million by 2025. We will have passed Spain and be closing in on Italy, whose population also is not growing.

The new Californians are not arriving to live as people live in Eastern U.S. or European cities, with high-rise apartments, high density and rapid transit. Californians want cars, highways and pools, the bigger, the better. And they don't want taxes or regulations interfering with their pleasures.

It is an impossible dream. Sensing the danger a generation ago, Californians established the Coastal Act and the Coastal Commission to protect the coastline from the onslaught of development.

But only tough zoning, the kind used in Ventura County, can protect the inlands.

California's growing population comes from many sources. Some Eastern states are losing people to the West, but the main population increase is driven by immigration, legal and illegal, and the immigrants' higher birth rates.

Congress has had no immigration policy for years. When bills come up to restrict immigration, legal or illegal, they are defeated, with help from California politicians. When Silicon Valley wants more engineers, San Joaquin growers more pickers, L.A's textile sweatshops more stitchers, they turn to Washington for help.

When the economy turns down and the new arrivals are thrown out of work and need help, the politicians turn against them. Remember Gov. Wilson and Proposition 187 only six years ago?

It may make sense for Eastern politicians to encourage immigration -- their states are losing population. It may make sense for senators like Spencer Abraham, R-Mich., to lead the fight against immigration laws. Michigan has 9 million people, lots of water, no Newhall Ranches and is on Canada's border, not Mexico's.

It makes no sense for California politicians to back immigration and fast growth.

Some say we don't need restrictions, that there is a market solution to California's growth problem.

Years ago, when Los Angeles was still a livable place, there was a professor of transportation at UCLA named Wesley Pegrum. One day, Pegrum informed us that the crowded new Santa Monica Freeway had emptied surface streets, like Wilshire, Olympic and Pico. Commuters should move back to the surface streets.

They did.

Forty years ago, with only 15 million Californians and lots of empty streets, supply and demand worked. Today, there is no room on any streets, and still the people come. Angelenos, having already spread to Riverside and San Bernardino, have their eyes on Ventura and the Tehachapis.

"People don't want to live in skyscrapers like New York," Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky told The New York Times.  "People fled New York to come here, and once you've lived in a single-family house with your own back yard, you're not interested in moving back into a Holiday Inn-like existence."

Yaroslavsky, who passes for a slow-growth advocate in Los Angeles and should have opposed Newhall Ranch, has thrown in the towel. Los Angeles is beyond saving, but what about the rest of us?

San Diego leaders mimic Yaroslavsky, zoning against density throughout the city, seeking instead to spread up empty hills, into the mountains and valleys, building more freeways to the dream houses. It is obtuse public policy, but local machines are greased with developers' money.

There will  be a market solution to our problem, a time when, having reached 50 million or 60 million people, the water runs out and congestion and pollution are so bad people won't come any more.

We shouldn't wait for that. We need anti-sprawl policies today, and shouldn't even consider voting for politicians who don't agree.

Goldsborough can be reached via e-mail at

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