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Banning Lewis Ranch

Op Ed submitted by Dave Gardner to The Gazette
(it was edited down and printed as an LTE)

The Gazette’s story Sunday about Banning Lewis Ranch (BLR) could only scratch the surface of implications for our city’s future. BLR is very significant to our community because, as the story pointed out, the massive 24,000 acre development represents about a third of the city’s geographic footprint.

The ecological footprint of the development is noteworthy. Unless they do things extremely differently, here are some of the annual impacts of the 180,000 projected residents of the ranch:

  • 162,000 tons of waste generated
  • 6.5 billion gallons of water used
  • 2 billion vehicle miles traveled
  • 81 million gallons of gasoline burned
  • 2.5 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity used
  • 8 trillion pounds of carbon dioxide emitted

BLR’s John Cassiani was reported as saying the growth will occur “whether Gardner or anybody else likes it or not.” This is a member of the same industry that routinely stands in front of City Council and threatens that charging developers and builders actual costs in utilities development charges would bring homebuilding to a stop. Which is it? Can we, or can we not, have an impact on demand for new houses (and therefore community expansion) by charging higher fees? Demand for new houses depends on a steady influx of in-migrants buying those houses or buying the existing houses of residents who then buy new houses. This is an important point for two reasons: 1) we have a limited and uncertain water supply and 2) any future water we manage to acquire will come at great cost and risk.

Cassiani mentioned BLR is taking on the “biggest burden…of any developer in city history” to pay its way. This is true. Agreements between the city and BLR do the best job yet of requiring growth to pay its way. Is that a lot of money? Yes. Is it 100% of the cost? No. Many of the costs will still be shifted to current residents.

Here’s why I campaign for making growth pay its way: if we truly connect all the costs of growth to the behavior that causes those costs, the marketplace will react more rationally – responding to the cost and scarcity of water, for example. Of course we’re going to have a population boom as long as we artificially lower the cost of new development with growth subsidies. Cassiani would have us believe there is nothing we can do about it.

City leaders have been unwilling to assess new development for the full cost of required infrastructure. I see three possible reasons for this: 1) The Housing and Building Association is the biggest campaign contributor in town, 2) Councilors fear economic catastrophe if house prices rise, and/or 3) City coffers get a quick hit of sales tax revenue from construction materials.

Number 1 is sad but true. As for no.2, if we can only have a healthy economy by expanding the city indefinitely, then we face a very bleak future when the water runs out. Construction is less than 10% of our local economy; it would be wonderful to put some of that industry to work on taking better care of what we’ve already built. We could afford that if growth weren’t sucking our city coffers dry.

At no point in our city’s history did citizens vote to tax ourselves and raise our utility rates in order to discount the prices of new houses. Yet policy-makers act as if they have a mandate from us – to take from all our household budgets (rich and poor alike) in order to artificially reduce the price of new mcmansions for newcomers and current residents. As for no. 3, the quick hit of construction tax revenue doesn’t begin to make up for the long-term costs of meeting the needs of an expanding city.

There is no question increasing our water supply will come at great cost – financially, agriculturally and environmentally. Experts believe our state is likely to have less water to work with in the future. Our city and county budget crises, the backlogs, tax increases, crowded schools, and new fees all reveal our expansion-based prosperity strategy is a miserable failure. Officials are betting our city’s future on continuing that strategy. And to do that they’re taking us way out on a limb in terms of water. The growth industry lobby is the most powerful force in town, so none of this will change until our citizens speak out in great numbers about our desire to stop subsidizing growth and gambling with our water supply and our children’s future.

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