Last Chance for Roseville

When you get right down to it, mimes do some pretty silly things. One of the staples of their trade is pretending to be trapped in a box, using their hands to trace out the edges of their imaginary prisons.

Of course, this trick eventually becomes tiresome, and so they rarely perform it for long. Once the ever-fickle crowds begin to yawn, the astute mime quickly moves on to some other exercise in absurdity.

Urban growth boundaries aren’t all that different. A city traps itself in an imaginary box, refusing to allow development to continue beyond some arbitrary line. However, unlike the boxes that afflict so many a mime, these government constructs tend to be a wee bit more permanent. Try as you might, you can—t simply turn away.

The latest example of this phenomenon comes from Roseville, just north of Sacramento, where a growth boundary initiative was recently been placed on the November ballot. Under the proposed law, any development proceeding in specific areas north or west of the city would require voter approval.

Now there is no sunset provision included in the legislation; no allowances are made for possible (even predictable) changes in development patterns. If it passes, the people of Roseville will be stuck with this law unless another referendum can be held, meaning that development will be essentially be regulated ad infinitum.

And just why is this being done? It certainly isn’t performance art. Roseville’s city council isn’t carrying on some brilliant homage to pantomime. There’s something seemingly-sensible at work, even if only at first glace.

The sad answer is that Roseville is following a trend that has been tracing its way down the Pacific Coast, a trend aimed at protecting “open space” and creating higher-density cities by curbing low-density suburban development in outlying areas. The central notion behind this trend is that cities have been taking up too much land, and that the development of new land therefore must be restrained.

It would all appear at least vaguely reasonable – until you begin to consider the consequences of this ham-fisted response.

Just last year, the Reason Foundation released a study chronicling the destruction caused by urban growth boundaries in San Jose. Reason concluded that urban growth boundaries were the primary cause of a 936% increase in housing costs from 1976-2001 – the highest increase in the entire country.

Consequently, those who work in San Jose have been steadily moving out to nearby cities and commuting inward, which has resulted in higher rates of congestion. Since one of the putative goals of the growth boundaries was to encourage greater densification, this is a very puzzling outcome – at least to policymakers.

Moreover, San Jose’s much-vaunted light rail system has been an unmitigated failure. Urban growth boundaries were supposed to bring ridership by bringing people closer together, but they ultimately forced them apart.

It follows, then, that urban growth boundaries are utterly counterproductive. Whatever goals they have are usually rendered meaningless in practice, as people always find a way to live how they want, and never how planners expect. Attempting to stop low-density development at the edges of cities is as pointless as standing against the tides. It’s to big a force for government regulation to conquer.

Accordingly, if people want to purchase inexpensive, single-family suburban homes that take up more space than the Roseville city council desires, they’ll find a way to do so – it just probably won’t be in Roseville.

When that happens, it won’t be homeowners who will lose out. It will be the city itself. It will have tried to trap its citizens in an imaginary box, but in the end, they’ll escape because the boundaries were always a legal fiction, not based on anything remotely tangible.

Urban growth boundaries ultimately fail because people aren’t mimes. They aren’t trained to participate in something that isn’t real for the amusement of short-sighted city officials. They may be fooled at first, but as Lincoln once remarked, “you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” People will eventually figure things out.

Roseville has one last chance to turn away. If they vote down this referendum, then perhaps the city council can move on to some other exercise in absurdity. We can only hope that by then they’ll have found a better trick than “the box.”

Owen Courrèges is a research fellow in urban and land use policy at the Reason Foundation