|A GROWING PROBLEM|
May 26, 1999
The suburbs around San Francisco and San Jose are the latest battlegrounds for the ongoing conflict between developers and those who seek to limit growth. Spencer Michels reports.
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, sprawling America. Spencer Michels reports.
TRAFFIC REPORTER: Bad news when the Southbound 280 is closed.
TRAFFIC REPORTER: It is backed up almost all the way to Highway 85 and northbound is backed up to Saratoga.
SPENCER MICHELS: Twice a day, software engineer Ray O'Farrell ventures into the paved jungle that is traffic in the San Francisco Bay area. He commutes 32 miles to his job in Silicon Valley from a suburb called Pleasanton.
RAY O'FARRELL, Bay Area Commuter: Initially, the commute, when I moved out here to Pleasanton, initially, it was about 35 minutes -- very little blockage at all. It's now about an hour and ten minute.
SPENCER MICHELS: A new state study shows that morning and evening rush hours in parts of the Bay Area have nearly doubled in length over the past two years, and now total seven hours a day. Bay Area population, which is near seven million people and growing fast, has spilled outside the traditional the nine- county urban area and into the agricultural land to the East, North, and South. It's part of the statewide pattern, California's population grows 14,000 people a day, the Sierra Club says 400,000 acres of open space are lost to development every year in the United States. Houses march across the countryside, with little break between what were once distinct communities. People seek out affordable homes, which takes them further away from their workplaces. As a result, commutes are longer and commuter O'Farrell, for one, hardly gets to see his daughter.
RAY O'FARRELL: Quite often she's asleep by the time I get home, so I do have to make sure in the morning before I go to work, I make sure to wake her up so at least there will be, you know, 20 minutes or something like that where she gets to see me that day.
|Public reaction and government response.|
SPENCER MICHELS: The frustration brought on by the sprawl has attracted increasing political attention. Vice President Al Gore launched a federal attack on urban sprawl, proposing a billion dollars in new spending.
VICE PRESIDENT AL GORE: In too many places across America, the beauty of local vistas has been degraded by decades of ill-planned and ill-coordinated development. Planned well, and you have a country that nurtures commerce and private life. Plan badly, and you have what so many of us suffer from firsthand: Gridlock, sprawl, and that uniquely modern evil of all too little time.
SPENCER MICHELS: In dozens of state and local elections, voters have shown they too want to do something about sprawl. Last November, they approved nearly 175 ballot measures to contain growth. Some allocate funds for conservation; others set limits on new development. Even in areas without ballot measures, the political winds are starting to shift against growth. The fastest-growing county in the Bay Area, Contra Costa County, East of San Francisco, had a longtime reputation as being friendly to developers. In the 60's, new highways snaked across the hills. The 70's brought rail transit. Together, they prompted an explosion of population. Politicians approved thousands of new homes, many of them on former farm or orchard lands. Developers eyed the county's sleepy Dougherty Valley, bought up cattle ranches, and secured permission to build homes. As the economy strengthened, so did the demand. When 40 of those homes came on the market recently, hundreds of prospective buyers had to submit to a lottery to win he right to buy a house for around $1/2 million.
SPOKESMAN: Two-zero-four. (Cheers)
MAN: I'm feeling good. Excellent, I feel great, it's my lucky day!
SPENCER MICHELS: With 11,000 more homes slated for construction in this valley, developers use fountains of imported water, and model homes featuring lavish entertainment centers to lure prospective buyers.
REALATOR: Here at Gail Ranch and here at the Bridges really reflects a traditional European and eclectic mix.
SPENCER MICHELS: Not everyone is buying the pitch. Jim Sayer of the Greenbelt Alliance, a group dedicated to preserving open space, says the sprawl has created a backlash among residents.
JIM SAYER: The situation has gotten so bad out here in terms of the traffic, lost open space, cost services, that they finally decided to get involved in the political process. It's created a real counterweight to the development community, which has had its way for so long. You're seeing a number of people step up who didn't step up before.
SPENCER MICHELS: Part of the backlash was the election of Contra Costa County Supervisor Donna Gerber. Citing air pollution, traffic, poor water quality and overcrowded schools as consequences of rapid growth, she promised to curb new construction.
DONNA GERBER: We're kind of stuck in a growth mode, is the way I see it. You know, I come from Southern California, so my feeling is it's time to know when enough is enough, and this it.
SPENCER MICHELS: Gerber and her allies took on developers in a fight over home- building in the nearby Tassajara Valley, also in Contra Costa County, where 5,000 more houses were proposed on rolling ranch land. Landowners there claimed they had a right to sell their private property to developers, especially for well-planed, long-term projects. Eric Hasseltine, a consultant to developers and a former county supervisor, says growth opponents overreact.
ERIC HASSELTINE: As soon as you get this down on paper and show this big plan for that area, Tassajara, for example, and you come in and say "okay, here's - there's going to be another 5,000 or 6,000 houses out here, people immediately completely disregard the fact that we're talking over 20 or 30 years. They just look at this huge mass of houses and say, "Oh, that's terrible. You know, they're going to ruin that whole area, and we can't possibly accommodate that."
SPENCER MICHELS: In fact, that's how the public reacted. Gerber and other county supervisors sided with the conservationists, forcing the developers to abandon their plans.
|Fight for Milpitas Hills.|
SPENCER MICHELS: In the fast-growing town of Milpitas, near San Jose, it was the voters who acted against developers. The issue was development of the hills adjacent to the town. A handful of luxury subdivisions were built there recently, and some landowners planned to develop more.
MARIA LEMERY: This I paid to have done -- worst piece on the whole campaign.
SPENCER MICHELS: Longtime homeowner Maria Lemery led a ballot initiative called Measure Z to create an urban growth boundary, a line at the base of the hills beyond which most new development would be forbidden.
MARIA LEMERY: Once you open it up, and the city approves developments and agrees to provide services, basically it's very growth- inducing, then there's another development, another development, and that's what you call sprawl.
SPENCER MICHELS: Lemery valued her view of the hills, and didn't want it ruined.
MARIA LEMERY: Why do people go off and do camping? Why do we go off into the woods? Why do we feel that need? It's just there. If we were to let the market forces prevail, we would not have beautiful open spaces.
SPENCER MICHELS: 55 percent of the voters approved Measure Z, and so the road separating the hills from the homes became the urban growth boundary. Still, there were plenty of unhappy homeowners, like Karen Serpa. Serpa says she had wanted to protect the open spaces as well, but thought it could be done without new regulation. Her family has owned 29 acres of the Milpitas Hills for two generations.
KAREN SERPA: The public in Milpitas is very, very centered on the fact that they like the hills. They go so far as saying "our hills." They are not their hills. I do not owe the public a view of my open hills. This is an issue, keep local control of our hills, vote no on Z. This was the basis of our campaign.
SPENCER MICHELS: Serpa led the opposition to Measure Z, which she said would prevent her from building homes for her three children on her own land. But she knew she was fighting against a popular cause.
KAREN SERPA: It gets votes, it gets votes. I understand the concern for the environmental community. I understand Vice President Gore's putting his money toward that. There are many areas that can be environmentally protected. I don't think it should ride on the back of individual citizens.
SPENCER MICHELS: And you think it's on your back?
KAREN SERPA: Absolutely.
SPENCER MICHELS: Developer Tom Koch, who builds homes throughout the Bay Area, says anti-growth initiatives are unrealistic.
TOM KOCH: We're talking about our children and where they're going to live, and that's the real issue that the Bay Area faces. Our projections are the state will have 48 million people by the year 2020. We currently have 33 ½ million people. I know of no policy, no directive that would change that in the least. So we need housing at all levels, at all income levels, in all locations. That's what needs to happen for California to be able to handle this challenge.
|A better way?|
SPENCER MICHELS: No one disputes that, but slow-growth advocates say citizen action and planning can reverse the outward sprawl of suburbs and revitalize cities. They point to Portland, Oregon, which 20 years ago adopted an urban growth boundary. The city pioneered what planners call smart growth, a policy encouraging redevelopment downtown and in older suburbs; building homes close to public transit; and filling in empty or abandoned urban sites. Those measures can entice people back into cities, argues Richard Moe of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
RICHARD MOE: We're not saying that everybody should live in cities. What we're saying is that people should have choices. People who want to live in the suburbs should live in the suburbs, but they should do it in a community that is rationally planned, and you don't have to drive everywhere. So that you could walk to school.
SPENCER MICHELS: But that kind of planning equals social engineering, according to Peter Gordon, economist at the University of Southern California.
PETER GORDON: The idea that there is a higher intelligence down at the county board of supervisors who can predict the future and say that we will ordain how this land ought to be best used, that attitude causes me to worry.
SPENCER MICHELS: Gordon says market forces-- the home-buying public-- should determine what gets built where.
PETER GORDON: People are making these choices with their eyes open and people aren't being stupid. They are saying, all things considered, this is where the schools are better, this is where the taxes are lower, this is where I get me bang for the buck, and this is where I get more open space, meaning a bigger back yard.
SPENCER MICHELS: The debate over sprawl-- whether it's inevitable , whether it can be curtailed, whether it's even a problem-- moves to Washington this year, as Congress takes up the administration's proposals to ease traffic, preserve open space, and promote smart growth.