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Eyes Wide Open

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
– Mahatma Gahdhi

The growth industry circled the wagons on the op/ed pages of The Gazette January 4, 2004, in an effort to quell the rising voices questioning claims our community benefits financially from growth. While we rejoice the dialog is happening and rational voices have the business-as-usual crowd on the ropes, it’s disappointing when pro-growthers or civic leaders still don’t get it or continue to ignore the truth. It’s apparent from recent Gazette editorials and letters from the Housing and Building Association, that we still have not articulated the slow-growth premise in a way that can be universally understood. So here’s another shot:

This is not an anti-developer vendetta. It’s a concern for future generations. Is it ludicrous for the Pikes Peak Region to have a population over 1 million people when we struggle to provide water to half as many people? With a population of 1 million, will this area retain the qualities that attracted us to live here? If water crises are a near certainty as we approach the million mark, and if we will suffer crowding, congestion, pollution, declining hospitality, and rising crime and rudeness, what are our reasons for pursuing this path of expansion? I can imagine only two: 1)it puts more money in our pockets, and/or 2)it’s unavoidable. Personally, I’m willing to forego the economic benefits of growth (if there are any) in the interest of maintaining the attractive quality of life we have today. However, it’s possible most local citizens are not of that mindset. The majority, or at least those making the decisions in town, cling to a long-held belief there is an economic benefit to growth, and quality of life is a necessary casualty in the quest for this pot of gold.

Who am I to argue with the will of the majority? I simply want to make sure that, if the majority of citizens choose to pursue economic gain at the expense of quality of life, they do it with their eyes wide open. Eyes open to the inevitable consequences of growth. And eyes open to all the facts. I want to ensure this choice is based on the most complete, factual analysis possible of the costs and benefits. The growth industry, led by developers and homebuilders, has presented carefully selected, limited information about the costs and benefits of growth. That shouldn’t surprise us; they want to protect their industry. Some accuse them of being corrupt and greedy; I prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt. They probably believe their limited analysis of cost/benefits of growth. And even if they know the hidden truths about growth, you can’t blame them for trying to preserve their livelihood by using widely-practiced public relations spin techniques. But someone must look out for the best interests of our community.

I’m calling for an honest and comprehensive accounting of the true costs and benefits of growth. I’m not complaining about paying school taxes, escalating utility bills, or the fact I’m eventually going to have to ante up to chip away at our infrastructure backlog. I just think if we choose a future of pollution, congestion, rudeness, and very pricey water pumped from Nova Scotia, we should do that based on true knowledge of what we get in return. To do that analysis, we must include the future costs of I-25 and Highway 24 widening and improvements, new interchanges and freeways through and around town, school and library construction, the Southern Delivery System for water, connecting water infrastructure throughout the county when domestic wells run dry, new wastewater treatment plants, power plants, and the next, longer pipeline for water and the legal costs to fight someone for that water. And we should add the cost of lost time and burned fuel sitting in congested rush hour traffic. A truthful accounting should include the health-care costs, as well as deaths, associated with dirtier air, and the costs of air and water quality monitoring and mitigation. Increasing mass transit subsidies should also appear on the profit/loss statement for growth.

These are not debatable points. Not one city on the planet has figured out how to get big without facing these challenges. The growth industry insists we ignore these growth taxes as we do our cost/benefit analysis of growth. If we choose the growth approach to economic vitality, we will face these hurdles and pay these growth taxes as certainly as there is gravity. We don’t need to debate whether it’s fair for current residents to be saddled with these costs. Right now the big decision we face is: Will the Pikes Peak region be a better place with 1 million residents? If not, did we get what we wanted in the bargain as we sold out? As we used up our clean air, clean, affordable water, peaceful parks and accessible recreation areas, relatively low crime and bearable commutes, were we well-paid for it? Or did we sell this region out in the interest of a quick buck, only we didn’t even get the quick buck? My preference is not to be a prostitute, and I’m guessing even those who think growth is good or inevitable would prefer not to be stupid prostitutes who fail to collect their pay.

A few hundred years ago societies clung to the notion the world is flat. It’s a long-held belief that growth is essential for a community’s economic survival. We’ve been living a great little experiment (called the boom of the nineties) that disproves the theory. Many enlightened economists, urban planners and social scientists have reached this same conclusion – that expansion is not the only way to achieve economic vitality, and in fact growth more often results in a net financial loss for communities. It’s painfully obvious to many of us, but a comprehensive accounting will reveal once and for all we actually are paying dearly rather than being paid for destroying what attracted us all here. That being the case, maybe we should stop subsidizing growth in the mistaken belief that we benefit from it. Most would say we can’t stop growth. But why accelerate it if it truly only benefits a small minority of individuals and industries and guarantees a future of water wars?

Dave Gardner

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