July 5, 2000 - From the July, 2000 issue

Planning for Prosperity: Sierra Business Council Offers A Plan of Action

In 1994 Lucy Blake, former director of the CA League of Conservation Voters, founded the Sierra Business Council, for which she recently received $500,000 as a MacArthur Fellow. The ingenuity of the Council lies in an approach to conservation that moves beyond the growth vs. no-growth debate, successfully merging environmental and business concerns. Lucy shares with TPR the strategies and projects that are making the Council a model for managed growth organizations across the State.


Lucy Blake

Lucy, your organization, the Sierra Business Council, has been recognized as "an example of how communities can integrate social, economic, and environmental concerns in mutually supportive ways." Translate this agenda for our readers here in L.A. What have you been able to do in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada that merits emulating throughout California? And is the Sierra Business Council a model for what is needed throughout the state?

What we've been trying to do is bring people together from different interest groups to encourage them to look at community challenges in an integrated way. Instead of thinking that protecting open space is something that only environmentalists should care about, we're trying to teach people in the business community that a healthy natural environment adds to the economic appeal of the region.

There are two ways in which the work we're doing is perhaps a little bit different from the way that conservationists traditionally have practiced. First, we see conservation as part of a broader community development effort that enhances the wealth of the entire community. And second, we engage a much broader range of players.

In 1997 your organization produced Planning For Prosperity: Building Successful Communities for the Sierra Nevada. Elaborate on this monograph's thesis and its implications for other California communities dealing with growth.

It's essential to move away from the growth versus no growth debate. In the Sierra Nevada region our population doubled between 1970 and 1990, and is expected to surpass 1 million by the year 2020. Planning for Prosperity is about planning for that growth so that the economic and environmental well being of our region is enhanced over the long-term.

In Planning for Prosperity, we outline a framework for positive growth so that people can recognize that we can accommodate new residents without compromising either economic or environmental quality. We developed a series of principles that were illustrated by case studies, and made the point that in order to have healthy growth we need to pursue development projects that are consistent with these principles.

The first principle for instance is to safeguard the rural character of the Sierra Nevada by maintaining a clear edge between town and country. That sounds simple, but it is one of the main problems that has plagued California-we've taken a scatter-shot approach to development, it's more expensive and undermines the rural character and environmental quality of our natural landscape.

Another principle is enhancing the economic vitality of small towns through ongoing reinvestment in the downtown core. Again, we need to learn from the tragic results of disinvestment in the town core throughout California. That's certainly something that L.A. has had to learn the hard way.

Who are the constituent members of the Sierra Business Council, and how are you engaging and nurturing their continual participation?

At this point we have 585 members from around the Sierra Nevada-about 90% are businesses and 10% local government leaders and nonprofit groups. We've invested a lot of time and energy trying to identify the leaders in each community that are really pushing for positive change and have tried to attract them to the Sierra Business Council. This local leadership is essential to our cause and can't be found anywhere else in the region.

We encourage and serve those members in a number of ways. First, we sponsor regional forums where we discuss issues such as sprawl, downtown redevelopment, or open space planning. Second, we have an annual conference where we invite speakers-like Phil Angelides-to talk about the broader challenges facing California. And third, we have an incredible program called the Sierra Leadership Seminar where we train local leaders in collaborative leadership. Through teaching them facilitation and negotiation skills we show them how to bring various interests together to address common challenges.

What do you say to the Robert Putnam's of the world who assert that too many citizens today are opting out of civic organizations and activities? Is this "bowling alone" notion descriptive of civic life in the foothills of the Sierra?

It's true. A lot of our residents are recent arrivals from Orange County and San Jose. And when they move to a rural setting they often think, ‘I've done my civic work and now I'm going to retire and play golf.' The challenge is to integrate the newer residents with the older residents who are involved.

Our constituency at the Sierra Business Council is active because they are local business owners. If they moved up here they immediately became investors in the region, and are very concerned with the quality of the region and local decision making.

The Business Council is also involved with Placer County in a program that you call Placer Legacy which looks at open space planning for the region. Can you give us some sense of the agenda and orientation of this effort?

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The Placer Legacy Project is a science-based approach to protecting open space that deals with habitat, agriculture, urban edges, recreation, and public safety. Placer County is one of the fastest growing counties in California, and is experiencing enormous development pressures. In the past there have been huge conflicts over individual projects, often revolving around specific open space concerns or endangered species. These types of conflicts are avoidable if we understand the landscape we're working with.

Historically, we've approached environmental compliance as an annoyance rather than something that is in our own self-interest. By considering environmental values quite far into the development process, those values become a barrier as opposed to something that we choose to work with in order to ensure both economic and environmental well being over the long-term.

When we heard that Placer County was interested in doing an open space program, we encouraged them to study the ecology of their county so that they could steer development away from areas that are going to be problems for natural systems. The great news is that the Placer County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 last month to adopt Placer Legacy and have subsequently proposed a quarter cent sales tax measure to help fund implementation.

Lucy, you've often spoken, with some concern, about growth at the urban edges; about sprawl, sustainable development and the relationship of the siting and building of schools as the centers of neighborhoods-an issue you've also discussed at your annual conference. What's the problem, in a nutshell?

Over the last 25 or 30 years, for every new person living in the state we've taken a greater percentage of the natural landscape away-with dramatic negative consequences for healthy ecosystems and agriculture. Instead of always having development focused on the perimeter of our communities, we need to turn our interests and our dollars back to the urban core-our existing built environment.

The huge problem with the siting of new schools reflects these issues. There are regulations that push communities to the edge when siting new schools-rules about distance from industrial operations and the amount of space needed for a schoolyard, etc. As a result, the sites that are chosen tend to be green-field sites in the middle of nowhere.

Making matters worse are developers-essentially speculating on the fringe-who often donate land to communities for school facilities. They assume that if a new school is sited near their property it will increase the property value and will help to garner community support for their project.

This spiral of sprawl and decentralization has to stop-it's time to reevaluate the rules of the game.

Let's segue from that to State/local fiscal issues. Sierra Business Council board member Richard Morrison particpated on the Speaker's Commission for State and Local Government Finance-whose recommendations are now in a joint Senate and Assembly Committee. Without fiscal reform, is Placer County able to be the architect of its own future, given the rules and regulations that govern fiscal incentives in California?

We're very concerned about the fiscalization of land use and the active competition between cities and counties for tax dollars. We have to change that incentive-it's a complicated issue.

As Rich and others have come back to the SBC and reported on this on-going discussion there has been enormous concern that change will result in a freezing of sales tax revenue-a revenue we're heavily dependent on here. There is the concept that the exchange is revenue-neutral but those are hard ideas to get across to local county supervisors who are distrustful of State government.

One last question Lucy. In an excerpt printed in MIR last month from Joel Kotkin's Digital Geography , Kotkin describes a whole new category of community resident: the I-can-have-it-all people. These folk want to live in settings that are beautiful and rustic and be able to communicate technologically with all their business concerns. Hasn't he described the bulk of the population influx to the Sierra foothills? What special challenges does this new demographic pattern have for making quality planning decisions in the future?

People who have skills that they can take with them and use over the telephone or Internet are realizing that their work is no longer "place based"-they can live wherever they want. That means further pressure for sprawl, particularly rural residential sprawl. It presents a huge challenge for the western United States. It's what drove sprawl into the Yellow Stone region and what's driving it to the Grand Canyon. The solution is to embrace a town-based approach to new growth thus enhancing the economic and social vitality of our towns and strengthening-not weakening-our region as a whole.

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