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Looking for homes in all the wrong places

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on March 8, 2011 at 7:47 pm with 3 Comments »
March 9, 2011 9:06 am

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

As a reality check on hopes for growth management, the new census numbers are roughly the equivalent of a whack on the head with a two-by-four.

The still-crucial goal of the 1990 Growth Management Act was to channel the state’s expanding populations into areas that were already urbanized or suburbanized. The idea was to protect farmlands, wetlands and critical wildlife habitat – and not so incidentally, the taxpayers’ pocketbooks.

Uncontrolled growth – letting suburban development overrun the countryside in every direction – is a guarantee of wasteful government spending on a stupendous scale.

Orting is a good example. Pierce County and the city’s own officials have allowed it to grow rapidly over the last two decades. The problem is, you can only get to and from the Orting area on a two-lane road – which is now routinely jammed.

Major road and other infrastructure projects siphon fortunes out of the public treasury, fortunes that might be saved if growth were contained to areas that already had roads and other urban infrastructure.

But it’s been obvious for years that the state’s attempts at growth management were in trouble. The 2010 Census shows how much trouble.

The big and middling-sized cities where most newcomers were supposed to live have been growing far more slowly than Puget Sound’s planners hoped for, the census confirms. Lakewood actually shrank over the last decade, as did much of Tacoma.

But once-rural communities – such as Graham and Frederickson – are bursting at the seams. Orting, which lies square in the path of potentially devastating lahars from Mount Rainier, is trying to expand its urban borders into adjacent farmland. Also exploding is South Hill, which was already a transportation nightmare 20 years ago.

Those are exactly the kind of places people weren’t supposed to move to.

No point in scolding the new neighbors. People go where they go for rational reasons. Families tend to like yards and a sense of safety. Some like the sense of being out in the country – though the country disappears in a hurry when enough country-lovers arrive.

What undermines growth management most, though, is economics. Real estate tends to cost considerably more in cities. Growth control itself helps drive up the cost of available residential land by making it scarcer. It’s a simple matter of supply and demand.

The solution isn’t – as laissez faire types argue – to surrender all the lowlands in Puget Sound to strip malls, ruinously expensive highways and traffic jams. That’s the problem.

The chief remedy lies in making the cities a destination of choice. That means child-friendly neighborhoods, safe streets, quality high-density housing, playgrounds, parks and excellent school systems to leverage the amenities – such as medical care, shopping, entertainment and cultural attractions – that only larger cities can offer in abundance.

Protecting the region is going to require creativity and a real sense of urgency. South Hill once looked like Orting. Orting may someday look like New Jersey.

Leave a comment Comments → 3
  1. hortonpeak says:

    Well, Pierce County is Pierce County. In my opinion, the only thing that generates any sense of urgency in the county is when some developer has urgent needs. I would also say it does not require creativity but it requires guts to go against the entrenched underbelly of Pierce County. Of course, the “news” tribune has been the voice of support for such “creativity” and urgency. Patrick, i agree with what you are saying but as usual there is no effort to confront the problem but only write about the symptoms. But, then the “news” tribune is doing one hell of a job reporting about Washam. Like so many issues – seems a bit late.

  2. BlaineCGarver says:

    People are not well or healthy when jam-packed together. Centers of population are the main source of crime, disease, and dischord.

  3. hortonpeak says:

    Yes, the non packed together folks of rural Pierce County are a much more healthy, crime free, happy bunch of folks overall than those city folks. I guess with such an observation I can remove the alarms on my rural getaway. Thanks for saving me a bunch of money. I have a feeling my insurance company may not agree. Off to reset the alarms.

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