Staring at traffic gridlock, strip malls, and the ever-multiplying red tile roofs, it’s easy to understand how local residents can view growth as a four-letter word. Responding emotionally in true ballot box fashion, Contra Costa County voters created an urban growth boundary in 1990 to combat the effects of rapid urban growth with little knowledge of the unintended consequences. The County Board of Supervisors, who constricted the boundary in 2000, has now decided to put the urban growth boundary expansion proposal on the ballot. The purpose of the boundary is to reign in haphazard urban sprawl, but growth boundaries’ track record around the nation have been less than stellar and their existence tends to create serious unintended consequences.
Proponents, planners, no-growth advocates, and especially environmentalists, will tell you that growth boundaries will preserve open space, make your commute better because you’ll live closer to work, and improve our environment. But, they won’t tell you that growth boundaries drive up housing prices by artificially restricting the county land supply or slow economic growth by deflecting it to neighboring growth hot spots like Solano County or even the Central Valley. The real kicker is that once the boundary is locked in, the hope is that densities will increase to the point where driving becomes miserable and we will want to walk and use transit.
The bad news doesn’t stop there. By focusing growth in selected areas, most development will occur in infill locations which means that open space won’t necessarily be preserved as much as transferred. So, instead of open spaces within your neighborhood, they will be confined to outside of town.
And don’t be duped by the density arguments. Environmentalists and planners will argue that higher density will be a “win-win” until that high-density development proposal goes to your local city council vote. High density housing, like taking the BART or bus, always sounds great – for everybody else like most of your neighbors or those sitting in traffic in front of you on Interstate 680 or Highway 24.
Because planners typically overestimate the demand for high-density housing and underestimate the community resistance to it, the plans and realities of density usually diverge. The result: less concentrated development. When low density persists with growth boundaries, the results could be disastrous – lots of traffic and housing shortages and unaffordability.
The cities, for their part, want more control over the process. Land use has historically been the turf of local governments as they are best fit to deal with new development and its impacts. Many of Contra Costa County’s municipalities aren’t thrilled that the Board of Supervisors could create such a housing and development quandary for them and then play politics by pushing the boundary expansion to the voters.
What growth control supporters don’t seem to understand is that growth will occur, it is just a matter of where. And you can’t just focus all of the growth in high-rise condos and apartments because everyone doesn’t move to Contra Costa County to live that way. The result: sprawling houses with yards and the nearby mall to do your shopping. We would do well to seek out policies that address traffic congestion and loss of open space without creating a host of other worse problems. But you won’t see things like road pricing on the ballot or financial incentives to protect environmentally fragile lands. While the easy gut reaction is to always oppose growth through some sort of limit or boundary, we should avoid kneejerk responses, think clearly about the issues, and look to other cities’ failures with growth boundaries for guidance.
Chris Fiscelli is a senior fellow in urban and land use policy at Reason Foundation