Unanswered questions on Merced growth

The Merced County League of Women Voters held a workshop at Merced City Hall last week on several general plan updates going on around the county.

The first speaker, Dr. Michael Teitz, is an emeritus professor at UC Berkeley who said he had consulted with UC Merced recently. He was introduced as a scholar who had studied the Valley for years.

In view of what Teitz said about the urbanization of the Valley, it would have been interesting to have heard from him some time sooner than after the “UC Merced done deal” was really done. But, like UC biologists largely muzzled during the planning and development stage, Dr. Teitz was not a household word in Merced when what he had to say might have had some influence.

He had a slide show/power-point presentation called “Future Urbanization of the San Joaquin Valley.” There can be no greater concern than the future urbanization of the Valley, he said, but failed to say why.

He announced that nobody can tell the future, but from the past certain deductions might be made and certain patterns observed and then reported on some possible scenarios generated by computer models at UC.

Only 2 percent of the San Joaquin Valley was urbanized in 2000, according to Teitz’ figures, but, due to the location of the county seats along railroad routes adjacent to prime farmland, most of this urbanization has occurred on prime farmland. Yet, in the last 30 years, the Valley has growth at a rate of 300 percent, its population now exceeds that of 20 states and by 2040, if this rate continues, it will equal the population of the greater Bay Area.

Yet, this will not be urbanization in the classic sense of cities, but the suburbanization of farmland. The Valley is growing at a rate nearly equal to Mexico, exceeding the Central Valley as a whole, California and the nation by widening margins. Valley growth is, for example, much higher than growth in the metro Sacramento area.

It will be the greatest transformation the Valley has seen since the coming of irrigation, Teitz said. To what effects, he asked.

Increasing asthma (especially among children); more competition for water; loss of wildlife habitat and environmental quality; encroachment on agriculture; increasing conflicts over land use; it raises a profound, unanswered question about what will the future economic base be for this increased population; and growth itself does not seem to address the problems of endemic poverty (“as bad as anywhere in the US,” he said) and high unemployment in the Valley.

Assuming (without admitting he was assuming) this growth is “inevitable,” Teitz presented data from four computer models, to show where this growth might occur over the next 45 years.

Assuming things go on as they are going now, the “let it rip” scenario, the model foresaw a slurb from Fresno to Bakersfield, which Teitz compared with what is happening on the 101 corridor from San Rafael to Ukiah. This scenario presents us with a suburb on prime farmland expanding outward from 99 through most of the Valley. Since it is the most likely scenario, it explains why the Great Valley Center has expended so much attention on the beautification of 99.

The second model assumed there would be no construction on prime farmland. Teitz dismissed it an entirely unrealistic model.

The third model introduced the high-speed railroad and claimed that growth would be denser and clustered around the stations along the route, as if someone knew where those stations might go.

The last scenario assumed major improvement of roads, particularly east-west roads, in the Valley. This one seemed to have less impact on prime farmland than the present growth pattern, Teitz said. Throughout the performance, the professor seemed more interested in the models than in the problem.

But there appear to be several problems with the most likely scenario – “let it rip” growth, what we have today. First is the question: how much asthma is too much asthma, here in the worst air quality basin in the nation? Second, is global warming, which seems to be producing more and more dramatic effects in the world despite its denial by the Bush administration and California developers. Considering global warming, it ought to be the planning principle that – barring evidence the addition of millions of people and their automobiles will not harm the Valley environment – we ought to plan not to grow, to protect what we have. Third is mounting evidence that the world is approaching or has reached the peak of its oil supply and fuel will become scarcer and more expensive as the years go by. This would seem to be an excellent argument for stopping the growth of bedroom communities in the agricultural Valley, when coupled with the complete economic mystery of how the additional millions would be employed in the Valley. In mentioning competition for water, Teitz failed to mention a more immediately pressing problem: water pollution.

It was not even whispered by the planners that California’s population has so far exceeded its resource-carrying capacity that what is called “growth” today, providing a few more billions for a very few billionaires, is entirely at the expense of natural resources the region cannot afford to lose on any account, least of all for the non-human species whose rights to live and evolve have been bulldozed away along with the environment that is intrinsically valuable. Growth in California has damaged the quality of life for everyone and everything.

A classical economics based on human needs rather than desire will either be reinvented in theory, by government and by planning, or it will be forced on us all by events, without any theory, government awareness or planning. At the moment, growth in the Valley is occurring primarily through flight from the more expensive real estate markets of the coast, where the jobs are, rather than any real need or attraction on the part of new residents for the Valley. This is causing and will cause more social friction as good ag land is destroyed to build homes for people who really don’t want to be here.

City planners from Los Banos, Livingston and Merced followed Bill Nicholson, director of the county Planning and Community Development to the podium. Fred Goodrich, the Los Banos planner, remarked that, based on his 26 years of professional planning, growth would go right on, “unfortunately,” because prime farmland is cheaper than Bay Area land and there are enough willing sellers.

Nicholson explained that most of the new growth in the county has been on prime farmland because, although there is political support for preserving it, there is law and regulation in support of preservation of wildlife habitat and endangered species on the rangeland borders of the Valley. He carefully qualified this support as state and federal, not local government. It is certainly true that thousands of acres containing state and federally protected wetlands and endangered species have been deep-ripped in Merced County in recent months without a peep out of Nicholson’s department to federal and state regulating agencies. In fact, so much rangeland habitat and wetlands is going so fast that federal maps of critical habitat and vernal pool recovery plans are quite out-of-date, thanks to the pro-growth attitude of the county, led by the O Pomboza team of Endangered Species Act gutters in Congress.

Both Goodrich and Nicholson indicated the only limitation on growth in the Valley they could foresee would be the costs of the public works projects necessary to provide sewer, water and roads for the new residents. Already, the capacity of the county’s sewers lag far behind its growth.

Donna Kenny, the Livingston planner, announced that Livingston’s new general plan was funded by its two major developers. Her solution to the employment problem was that once the rooftops were built, commercial business would follow.

Merced City planner, Kim Espinoza, explained that Merced was growing.

At the end of the lectures, Susan Walsh, the League official facilitating the meeting, announced that there were many interesting questions from the packed house, but there was no time to answer any of them. So, urging everyone to contact elected officials, she read each question, as if the public mattered in Merced County.

Walsh reads quite well, after having opined earlier in the League workshop that there was no way to stop growth.

Bill Hatch