It's Time to Question Growth
By Andy Kerr
Column #32 - Go to next column
Length: 749 words
Published: 9 October 1997, Wallowa County Chieftain
It is time to question growth. No, not emotional, spiritual or other fine kinds of growth. It's time to question population and consumption growth. Oregon has been growing rapidly for the several years and no end is in sight. But the end to the Oregon we know and love is well in sight. Estimates vary, but we can expect another million people to move to Oregon in the next several decades.
To date, the debate has been limited to how to accommodate the growth, not whether to have growth or not. While some believe that growth is good, polls show that more Oregonians favor slowing or stopping growth. Unfortunately, most believe that growth is inevitable. Some say it's good for the economy and citizenry. Most feel differently, but are resigned to longer commutes, dirtier air, and drinking water out of the Willamette River.
Developers (and their chorus of real estate agents, media, bankers and others who clearly do benefit from growth) don't question it and would rather the rest of us didn't either. If all this growth is so good, why are our taxes going up and libraries and parks closing, and potholes going unfilled?
Our taxes are going up because business taxes are going down. To compound the inequity, more of tax revenue is being diverted from schools, police, libraries, roads and parks to subsidize business to come or stay in Oregon.
The fact is that while growth increases the tax base, it also increases the obligations of government even more. The data is clear: the larger the city, the higher the per capita taxes.
Growth has costs which are being borne by all taxpayers. Consider new housing. Each new house in Oregon costs the taxpayers about $25,000 to provide infrastructure. This cost is not paid by the developer, nor paid back by the new household in taxes. Every time you see a couple of new houses, you're not seeing a librarian or teacher or police officer.
It would be cheaper for cities to buy up all the undeveloped land in their urban growth boundary (UGB), and dedicate it to open space and wildlife habitat, than to subsidize its development. But under state law a UGB must have extra land to accommodate 20 years of projected new development. Unless this law is changed, in most people's lifetimes, the urban growth boundaries from Eugene to Portland will all touch.
Must we settle for a better planned Los Angeles?
Alternatively, if the UGBs are not expanded, developers tell us that densification of existing neighborhoods is the only option. Their Sophie's choice need not be our Oregonian's choice.
Developers argue that we can't stop newcomers at the border. We're not suggesting such. However, we do suggest not paying them $25,000 to move here.
Have you ever heard of a chamber of commerce, be it in Burns, Bend, Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles or New York to say that the community is big enough? We cannot grow away community problems.
Rather than investing our hard-earned taxes in growth, let us invest some of it in schools, parks, sensible and clean transportation and libraries, and let us keep the rest to spend as we see fit.
It's not just newcomers who are causing the population growth. One-third is because the Oregonians who are here are having too many children. If unplanned and unwanted pregnancies were prevented, population would stabilize.
But what about the economy? The developers and their chorus say it can't prosper without growth. Economies do extremely well in war, but the costs are obvious. After WW II, the economy shifted. It is again transitioning after the end of the Cold War.
An economy dependent upon population increase is destined to decline. An economy is dynamic. We are a rich society. We can move to a sustainable economy that is better for people (except developers who can't change), communities and the environment.
At some point population and consumption on this planet will match the carrying-capacity of the Earth. If it occurs sooner, we and our children and their children will be the better for it. We shudder to think if it happens later.
Because most of us incorrectly believe growth to be inevitable, politicians are rewarded by campaign contributions from developers for aiding and abetting growth, even though they have to raise taxes to do it.
Growth is not inevitable. Oregonians have the power to choose their future. The questions are whether they will and will they choose wisely.