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"What price growth...?"

Growth issues prompt alternative viewpoints

200,000 now populate Thurston County

by Mike Layton

In 1950 that headline would have been greeted with universal joy. Even 20 years ago a large majority of Thurston County residents would have accepted the idea that the greater the county's population the more prosperous it would he.

"You can't stop growth," was the comfortable conventional wisdom.

The few who questioned unrestrained growth were ignored, until too many people began to listen to them. Then the epithets were hurled--radical, un-American, socialist, even the C-word.

Many people -- although perhaps no longer a majority -- still believe that "the greater the growth, the better the community. "

But an increasing number are having doubts, from Florida, growing uglier by the day, to California, the paradigm of unquestioning growth.

That skepticism has come at last to Thurston County as a stubborn group of doubters puts the cozy assumptions of ever greater growth to tests of analysis and fresh logic.

"We believe rapid growth is neither inevitable nor beneficial and that 'growth at any price' is unwarranted," says a statement of principles by the Carnegie Group. "Growth projections must be limited by the carrying capacity of our land and water resources."

A collection of Thurston County women and men long active in their communities, the Carnegie Group has met one night a week for more than a year to research details behind the glowing promises of economic development councils, chambers of commerce and elected local officials.

Resentment toward growth hinges primarily on "quality of life."

Declining environmental standards are plain to see -- traffic congestion, increased crime, crowded schools, dirtier air and water -- but they're hard to show on community balance sheets.

Now growth skeptics such as members of the Carnegie Group are factoring in pocket-book impacts too, costs in taxes.

The evidence is clear: as communities grow into towns and towns become cities costs go up. Taxes always increase, over time, as current taxpayers. home owners and businesses, are forced to meet greater costs to subsidize new-comers and they in turn subsidize later arrivals.

Citizens hit by higher tax bills are listening. So are elected officials, some of whom face voters this fall. Two city councilmen, Walt Jorgensen of Tumwater, and Jim Weber of Lacey, are members of the Carnegie Group.

The group is selling bumper stickers--QUESTION GROWTH, and recruiting "friends of Carnegies."

The group's conclusions challenge the basic premises of growth. Up to a certain level, in pioneer communities, they conceded, growth paid for itself.

Beyond that optimum, costs of growth outweigh growth's benefits.

In mature communities capital costs of new facilities to accommodate newcomers schools, roads and streets, parks, sewer trunk lines, water systems, police and fire stations--are subsidized by present residents.

"In fact," says Jerry Parker of the Carnegie Group, "taxes will probably more than pay for operating expenses, such as police salaries." His argument requires close attention.

"The rub is on capital expenses - land, roads, parks etc. For these, the city floats bonds paid by taxes on all property. If existing infrastructure has been paid off, then the overwhelming portion of the capital costs for new growth will be paid by existing property," Parker says.

"If a 10 percent growth in population means an additional $1 million in capital costs, then 90 percent of that will be paid by taxes on existing residents. This is unfair since the need is created by the 10 percent. In the case of police salaries, there is a 10 percent increase in cost but there should be a 10 percent increase in tax revenues. So no subsidy is occurring. The difference is that for operating costs, all residents, new and old, receive benefits and pay. For capital costs, "benefits" (i.e. the need) are just for the new residents but the cost is for all residents.

New business, the pro growth argument says, broadens the tax base. And that is true, so far as new industrial and commercial activity is concerned. The assessed values of a factory, a 'big box" store, a shopping center or an "industrial park," are high; taxes levied on those values generally pay for their impact on the community.

But those new buildings affect more than just the land on which they sit. Impacts ripple outward on two levels. First, the activity they generate in an ever-widening circle falls heavily on the larger area. chiefly in traffic congestion.

Acres of asphalted parking surrounding a mall, for instance, makes shopping convenient, even as they create drainage problems. But increasingly shoppers attracted by easy parking clog adjacent, feeder roads. And they encourage strip type development which does not pay in taxes for the costs it causes.

Second. and even more costly, those new industrial and commercial establishments generate population increases which in turn prompt developers and builders to create new subdivisions which fall far short of paying their way.

The total budget in Thurston County to accommodate growth over the next six years is $448.8 million, Thurston Regional Planning Council figures show. Of that, only $90.8 million, 20 percent, is repaid by growth, in impact fees and the like.

As residents of a community -- taxpaying homeowners and small businesses -- begin to feel the effects of rising costs of growth, they balk at supporting schools, parks and other community amenities. "Bureaucrats" and "government" are blamed for increased property taxes.

Community leaders call for an unexamined, knee jerk solution -- more growth.

Thurston County Commissioner Dick Nichols, a growth true believer, has no patience with what he calls "no growthers."

Commenting on a TRPC growth study late last year that did not analyze costs, Nichols said growth is a "complex issue (that) defies easy resolution and potentially lends itself to a polarized public discourse that's long on emotion-laden hyperbole and short on reasoned problem-solving.

"Like it or not," he said, "this region will continue to grow because of a robust economy buttressed by state government, The Evergreen State College, the military, associated public and private ventures and spinoffs from development elsewhere in the I-5 corridor. This attracts new residents, but it also provides a foundation of jobs for those already here."

Carnegie members, however, say most new jobs created in the community are filled by newcomers.

Economic development councils in every city and cross-roads community, financed by taxpayers, brazenly tout "quality of life" to entice new industry into Washington and Thurston County.

Carnegie members think that quality is diminished with every segment of new growth.

Lanny Carpenter, a well driller, commercial fisherman and Carnegie member, was outraged when he went to the Thurston Economic Development Council and was told that an information packet the Council sends, for free, to businesses thinking of moving here would cost him $100.

He protested, asserting that the packet is publicly financed. He got his $l00 back.

Gov. Gary Locke, at this stage of Washington's overdevelopment, proclaims that we can have it all; pure air and more cars, clean water and more houses, pastoral farms and more developments, salmon and clear cuts too.

The Carnegie Group has shifted from research to activism. It has submitted to the Olympia City Council a proposed model ordinance requiring a "fiscal note" be attached to every action of the council that will cause growth, from a rezone to subdivision development.

"We're not opposed to all growth," says Gene Dziedzic, a wildlife biologist, Lacey activist and the reluctant chairman of Carnegies, which has no formal structure, no officers and no dues.

"We just believe that taxpayers should be aware of all the costs when local governments plan projects that encourage growth,'' says Steve Langer, a psychologist and Carnegie member.

The ordinance, which the group plans to submit also to the Tumwater and Lacey councils and the county commission, was prepared by Bernard (Bernie) Friedman, a lawyer and Supreme Court law clerk.

It says "the city staff will prepare fiscal notes on the expected fiscal impact of any action the City proposes to take that will increase or decrease, or tend to increase or decrease, City government revenues or expenditures."

Sewer systems are engines of growth. Development goes where sewer trunk lines go. The Carnegies were pleased when the LOTT partners Lacey, Olympia, Tumwater and Thurston, recently modified a long-range plan for expansion to accommodate future growth.

Instead of proposing a vast new treatment system designed to encourage growth, they chose an incremental approach, with smaller satellite facilities to be built as natural growth occurs.

"This is the best example of public officials responding to the public that I've seen," said Friedman, a former Mukilteo city councilman.

Editor's note: Mike Layton is a member of the Carnegie Group


A recent example of Thurston County residential growth

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Updated 2007/01/26 19:08:04

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