Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: Lessons on smart growth

The Home Builders Association was pleased to read Jon E. Goetz’s recent viewpoint about “smart growth” in San Luis Obispo County (“Make smart growth a smart business choice,” Jan. 7).

He made some excellent suggestions, such as adopting a planned development ordinance, an excellent tool for creating more affordable housing and urban infill (smart growth).

We support and continue to lobby the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors to create such an ordinance.

Unfortunately, we find huge gaps between the county’s idealistic smart growth vision in its “strategic growth strategies” and the reality of what people in San Luis Obispo County unincorporated communities and cities will accept in their backyards.

In addition, recent studies by the National Academy of Sciences and the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments note that even substantially increasing urban infill development will only produce a negligible reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

The county envisions significantly restricting rural development and redirecting much more growth into existing towns. While some public speakers and decision-makers support such a concept, almost all oppose the projects that try to implement it in their neighborhood and demonstrate little understanding on how to make smart growth actually happen.

This gap is illustrated in the Templeton example Goetz referred to. The community opposed a project as too dense, while county staff and the Planning Commissioners denied it because they wanted the project to be three times as dense as it was. The applicant’s choice is to get sued by the community or rejected by the county. That is obviously a “no-win” scenario.

The Home Builders Association believes smart growth should be designed for each community individually. Smart growth in Templeton may differ from Shandon.

The county should approach planning with the idea of sustaining existing unique community character while clearly identifying areas where that growth and community expansion will be accommodated for the next 10 to 20 years.

The public needs to know what is planned for an area, and so does the building community so everyone can actually plan for the future.

But the county has resisted identifying exactly where the additional growth will go and has adopted policies that will not only prevent the necessary rezoning from happening, but will also make all residentially zoned land far more expensive to develop.

The county has not made much effort to understand or learn about real-world financial and insurance realities and constraints.

The county will not have urban infill until it zones land for it, stands up to NIMBYs (not in my back yard), somehow helps those projects proceed when NIMBYs delay them and tie them up in court and understands what can and cannot be insured, financed and approved.

The one time the county tried to increase density on a few small, selected urban lots to promote affordability, every community where it was proposed responded angrily in opposition, and the county quickly retreated.

Association members are in the business of providing housing that people want.

We know there are consequences if there is a gap between the type of housing people will actually buy or rent, the densities and locations existing neighborhoods will accept and the type of housing county policy mandates. Likely consequences are that projects will take longer to process, the planning approval process will be more contentious, there will be less housing because the density will get lowered and it will be more expensive to build.

We continue to publicly and privately urge the county to build more community consensus and to increase its own understanding of home building economics before trying to force something on the public that they don’t want, that they don’t understand why they should want and that doesn’t make financial sense to build.

The Home Builders Association will continue to support policies that will make smart growth a key component of future development patterns and oppose policies that are guaranteed to increase community opposition to development and make it harder to produce moderately priced housing.

We continue to urge the county to slow down, get more input from all the stakeholders and find a solution all can support, or smart growth won’t happen, housing prices will remain high and nobody will be happy.

Jerry Bunin is the government affairs director for the Home Builders Association.