Why the growth apologists are wrong

  There are two arguments defending sprawl in the West that never seem to end, and I hope I can convince you that both are flawed.

The first argument is that current residents must not try to "shut the door" on growth because they have no right to deny others what they enjoy. Forget for a moment that no one is talking about stopping growth -- only slowing it down.

I maintain that the only moral justification for ever limiting immigration into a city, region or nation is a convincing case that the anticipated population level will be seriously detrimental to the existing way of life and/or to the natural environment. This has never been true for the United States because we have always needed immigrants to fill our low-end jobs, and these immigrants are almost never the ones trashing our environmental treasures.

American Indians before "Manifest Destiny" had a clear case for keeping newcomers out. They may not have foreseen the environmental destruction, but they correctly saw what would happen to their way of life and tried to defend it. Contemporary communities and regions can sometimes make a similar case. An example is my town of Flagstaff, Ariz., where almost most everyone agrees that our growth from 30,000 to 60,000 people in the past 20 years has drastically changed our environment -- and the assumption that we were in control of local events.

We can see it in the loss of local businesses to big-box stores; in the disappearance of open space, including treasured places; in the trashing of our surrounding national forests and the depletion of our groundwater; and in traffic congestion and a noticeable decline in civility.

Apologists for rampant development say Flagstaff is still better than most places. They’re happy to trade these "nuisances" for the convenience, alleged savings and "amenities" of bigness. Thus the plethora of look-alike shopping malls and chain restaurants; the skateboard tracks; Hollywood-style movie complexes, huge fortress hotels and bottom-end jobs. Of course, the development industry loves it.

The second argument defending all this is a virtual throwing-up of hands: There's nothing to be done. Nonsense; we have the tools to manage growth. Cities such as Boulder and Portland have shown the way, though they've made mistakes we can all learn from. Full-impact fees, growth boundaries and downzoning are all tools waiting to be used, though in some places, notably Arizona, changes in laws are needed to empower, or at least not penalize, local government for using them.

The fairest and most straightforward tool -- a limit on building permits -- remains mostly unused because of the political power of the development industry and the timidity of local government. Our leaders’ fear of lawsuits is a political and psychological problem more than a legal one. In 1974, the city of Petaluma, Calif., passed a residential cap. Developers went to court and lost. The cap is still in effect and today is well accepted by locals.

Growth apologists argue that as long as population grows and people are free to move about as they wish, we have to accommodate the inevitable and praise developers willing to do it better. I think this argument fails at the local level.While we may not be able to slow population growth statewide, we can let cities like Flagstaff choose to limit themselves.

Salt Lake City or Phoenix may be able to absorb another 60,000 people over the next 20 years and never notice it; doubling Flagstaff to 120,000 in 20 years will destroy what we have forever.

We don't have to cave in. In November 2000, big money (about $4 million) from the development industry defeated Arizona’s Citizen's Growth Initiative by 2-to-1with a highly misleading last-minute media blitz. Yet bigger money -- some $20 million over 15 years -- couldn't buy a massive development at the Grand Canyon. There, Canyon Forest Village lost 2-to-1 in a county referendum in the same election. With far less money, the opposition was able to convince voters that the environmental and economic impacts were too negative. You can win a really big one.

Since I’m not talking about halting growth, does slowing it down even matter? Yes, because it gives communities more time to plan. Perhaps more importantly, things can change in 20 years (maybe even state legislatures). But once the land is bulldozed, paved and gentrified, communities and open space are gone -- if not forever, surely for generations.

Norm Wallen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a community activist in Flagstaff, Arizona.