Housing Protectionism

How a privileged few are preventing average Americans from becoming homeowners

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The Environmental Protection Hustle, by Bernard J. Frieden, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. 1979. 183 pp. $12.50.

Viewed one way, Bernard Frieden's Environmental Protection Hustle ranks with The Best of the Marx Brothers as an outrageous catalog of lunacy. Viewed another way, it is a compelling, fact-filled indictment of the antigrowth movement in America, made more telling by the author's almost superhuman self-discipline in restraining himself from exploding in outrage.

The meat of the book is a series of capsule histories of residential development projects in the San Francisco Bay area. Frieden has methodically compiled a chronicle of events from five sizable developments and presented the results in readable form. While easy to read, however, it is not particularly easy to digest, because—to continue this metaphor—the more one reads of this stuff the more likely one is to want to throw up.

In 1971 a firm named Challenge Developments decided to construct a planned residential development of 2,200 townhouses and condominium apartments on a 685-acre site in the foothills of Oakland, California. The plan was well within the existing land use plan of the city of Oakland. Still, the developer sweetened his proposal by agreeing to donate 480 of its 685 acres to the city for a regional park—a form of bribery and extortion roundly condemned in an earlier version by Pope Gregory VII 900 years ago. So induced, the city planning commission approved the project.

Then began what has become the inevitable litigation. A group called Citizens against Mountain Village sued the developer, claiming that it had not complied with the California Environmental Quality Act, a piece of legislation that has done more damage to home building in that state than anything since the last ice age and the San Andreas Fault.

The lawsuit was successful. The city council rescinded its approval. Finally, in desperation, the developer presented a revised plan for only 150-200 single-family homes, plus 100 estate lots ranging in size from 3 to 15 acres. The Sierra Club, having succeeded in transforming the original 2,183 units averaging $28,750 in price into less than 300 units averaging $60,000, dropped its opposition.

The epic of Harbor Bay Isle is even more outrageous. This landfill development on the east side of San Francisco Bay resulted in so much litigation that when it was finally settled, observes Frierden, "the San Francisco Bar Association might well have considered declaring a day of mourning." The actors here were the developer-victim, the Alameda City Council, the Airport Land Use Commission, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, and the Oakland Airport. The net result was that the projected 9,055 condominium apartments designed to sell for about $30,000 in 1972 became 3,170 single-family homes selling for an average of $65,000 in 1976.

ENDANGERED HOUSING

In the case of another major development, San Bruno Mountain, the end result was zero housing—the project was cancelled after 10 years of planning, replanning, appealing, litigation, harassment, and anguish. As the proposal stood at the time it was scrapped, an original 12,500 middle-income homes had shrunk to 2,235 upper-income homes.

A major factor in the process of obstruction in this case was the existence—alleged but never proven—of the "endangered San Francisco garter snake." There was also the problem of the "protected" red-legged frog—protected, it turned out, because California has general laws governing the taking of frogs. Finally, there was a weed called coast rock cress, which was not only common over wide areas of the state but had actually been reseeded on the parts of San Bruno Mountain planned for open space instead of housing.

The fourth major case study—of Blackhawk Ranch—is unique in illustrating how opposition from public bureaucrats can tilt the balance against a proposed development. In this case the planning staff of Contra Costa County systematically rejected all evidence that tended to support the argument for a 4,500-unit development on the slopes of Mt. Diablo. The main reason for this opposition appeared to be that the bureaucrats had recently completed a general plan for the county that did not provide for the proposed development, and approving it would have called into question the sanctity of the plan. The county planning staff achieved a pinnacle of creativity in discovering useful objections to the project.

For example, the planning commission shed hot tears for the Alameda striped racer, which, if it exists, is a snake. This valuable creature had not been located in the vicinity of the development, a fact offered as proof of its claim to rarity. The more rare a creature is, the more it is entitled to be protected, and a creature infinitely rare deserves infinite protection.

While the planning staff could produce no evidence that the protected American bald eagle had ever set foot upon the property, it was dutifully noted that there was a possibility that this splendid bird occasionally flew over the project area. All the more reason not to develop in haste—or not at all. (Blessed be the noble eagle that flyeth over the county planning office and unloadeth upon the occupants thereof!)

Frieden aptly summarizes the upshot of these and other case histories explored in the book. The environmental protection movement is simply at war with the idea of housing.

Outlying valleys should be spared from development because urban sprawl is energy-intensive and destructive of badly needed prime farmland (which produces the avocados and walnuts essential to fending off starvation in Bangladesh!). But hills should also be spared from development to preserve aesthetic vistas and prevent soil erosion. Oh, yes, no development on large tracts in the central city area—the urban public badly needs more open space. And forget about intensive in-fill housing—density leads to congestion, you know.

In short, the only housing development that the California environmental movement seems willing to allow is that which comes in small packages. The only reason even this is not the subject of attack seems to be that the resources of the environmental opposition can be better employed stopping the larger projects.

PRIVILEGED VS. POOR

Frieden has studied the rationalizations for environmental opposition to housing and finds them a confused and bewildering melange. What it seems to boil down to is that environmental activists are well-educated, upper-income, almost invariably white, property owners who have seized upon the supposedly public-spirited concern for the environment to protect themselves and their property from competition. They want open space. They want low tax rates. They want high property values. And they want working-class families kept out. They do not dare to expose this naked self-interest to public view, so they cast about for high-minded environmental and ecological rationalizations to protect their private interests.

Frieden has done an excellent job in condensing the case histories into modest length, in cataloging the possibilities for obstruction made available by various laws, and in identifying the true motives of many of the opponents of housing and growth. He patiently dissects the slogans—like the need to preserve farmland or protect various obscure or loathsome fauna—and shows that they have little basis in reality. He recognizes the vice of fiscal zoning (preventing development that does not "pay its own way") and the serious adverse effects upon the poor of efforts by the privileged to defeat development.

What Frieden fails to do, however, is to explore the desirability of the laws and regulations that have socialized the costs of public services. If everybody's property were not assessed to finance the education of some people's children, for instance, the taxpayers would be deprived of a major argument against new development in their taxing jurisdiction. We have proclaimed socialism in education, in highways and streets, in police and fire protection, and in many other "public" services. Now those who benefit from this socialism are trying to make newcomers "pay their own way," which is another way of saying "socialism for the rich, free enterprise for the rest." Better we should have free enterprise for everybody.

Frieden's book, however, should not be faulted for declining to pursue that thought. As it stands, it is a careful description and a devastating indictment of the war of the privileged elite against the underprivileged many, who are unable to organize to fight for their interests. Those who read it carefully will be stimulated to seek the solutions that Frieden stops short of offering, and that in itself is a major contribution long overdue.

John McClaughry is the president of the Institute for Liberty and Community, in Concord, Vermont, and was recently a member of the National Commission on Neighborhoods.

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