August 30, 1989 - From the August, 1989 issue

Politics of Planning and Growth: Cooperation or Conflict Among Us?

In response to a Los Angeles Times editorial that lauded AB 2460, Lynn Wessel, president of the Wessell Company (a Los Angeles based public affairs consulting firm specializing in governmental affairs and political-community relations program management), promotes a pro-growth sentiment in this article. Wessell argues that modern developers should work alongside the community in order to grow support for any new development. 

A recent Los Angeles Times editorial indicates the confusing nature of growth in California today. Referring to “the problem of unmanaged growth” statewide, the Times calls Assembly Bill 2460, sponsored by Assembly Majority Leader Thomas M. Hannigan, "a good place to start." Simply stated, the Hannigan bill tells public agencies in California that no new development project shall be approved “unless a demonstrable method exists for financing the necessary roads, schools, water and sewer facilities, and other public facilities directly related to the development project.” For the Times, the “Hannigan bill is one small symbolic step toward a more sensible California future.”

But while this may be a symbolic bill, it does not allay the public fears and misconceptions of growth. Certainly, growth—and attendant controls on growth—is one of the most challenging issues facing policy makers today. Growth has become an emotional issue, often to be decided at the ballot box with strident claims voiced by both sides. But cooperation among all members of a community—developers, elected officials, civic and social organizations, business, and citizens—rather than political conflict is necessary to solve the complex problems connected with growth and infrastructure.

But growth issues are all too often marked by conflict rather than cooperation. The Porter Ranch project in Chatsworth is the target of strident comment by homeowner’s groups protesting a perceived high level of commercial and residential density. In Studio City, the citizen-developer conflict is raging over whether a 1950's-style carwash and a Tiny Naylor's restaurant should be preserved. Sunland Tujunga residents are angered by a pending slope density ordinance that would require owners of existing single family homes to enter a review process if they wanted to increase the floor area of their homes. The list could go on and on.

Still, no one should be surprised by the emotionalism generated by the issue. Citizens are impatient with overburdened public facilities and the perceived decline in the quality of life, which translates into a very real fear that growth is out of control. The volatility surrounding growth issues is in response to traffic congestion, distrust of elected officials and their apparent inability to provide solutions and leadership, and concern about the capabilities of local communities to address infrastructure problems, rather than a deeply-ingrained philosophical stance against new development in all forms.

The emerging neighborhood consciousness is exemplified in the Studio City carwash controversy. A recent Los Angeles Times editorial puts it succinctly. “In Studio City, the carwash became a cause… To be sure, the people of Studio City want to save the carwash, but they also want something more. They want to stand their ground, they want their turf back.”

The aim of policy makers and developers alike should be to enlighten the public about the real problems associated with growth control, ending the confusion and emotionalism which cloud the debate. What citizens often fail to realize is that the process of growth provides impetus to a community's economy and helps finance the very infrastructure necessary to alleviate problems such as traffic congestion. Logic is harder to see if the debate is couched in neighborhood “protectionist” terms.

Back to the broader picture, for example, the Chapman College Center for Economic Research projected the impact of Measure A, Orange County's proposed no growth initiative. The study concluded that the initiative would suppress economic growth, resulting in lower incomes and fewer job opportunities. At the same time, housing prices would go up and tax revenues would go down. These factors would combine to limit government spending for the number one concern—traffic congestion.

Had Measure A passed, there was the very real possibility that Orange County traffic would have gotten worse rather than better as the initiative's sponsors claimed. Citizens would have been driven out of the County in their search for affordable housing while continuing to work in the County, continuing to use the County's roads and streets, but they would no longer be a part of the tax base necessary to finance traffic improvements.

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Thus, managed growth provides the means necessary to finance infrastructure needs. But this aspect of the growth issue is all too frequently misunderstood or ignored entirely in public debate, particularly and increasingly at the local, neighborhood level.

After all, developer fees are already paying for many infrastructure needs far in advance of development.

With the public’s fear of overdevelopment, the businessman-developer must learn to depart from the practices of the past. It is no longer enough merely to go to the appropriate public agencies or city councils for approval. The definition of building/private property rights is changing. Lawsuits have little viability in the face of popular agitation and elected official response to constituent concerns.

Instead, builders and developers must learn to build strong community coalitions which speak to the needs of the community. The building industry must learn that it needs to encourage the broadest possible participation of interests, enlisting the involvement of elected officials, the business community, the Chamber of Commerce, labor, local opinion makers, the media, and neighborhood groups with the goal of reaching a balance between neighborhood concerns, the needs of the larger community, and the rights of the properly owner.

Cooperation—not political conflict—among all concerned is necessary to reach those solutions. The widespread community coalition must take the lead by initialing action in the name of properly managed growth. If traffic congestion or perceived overdevelopment in a neighborhood is a community's major concern, the coalition must, as responsible members of the community, provide leadership to solve the problem. Such a leadership role is action-oriented, working to encourage reasonable growth in the community.

By taking an active leadership role in confronting the problems associated with growth, by working within the community coalition, the developer becomes an even greater part of the solution, exploding the myth that developers are the problem.

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© 2021 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.