Smart Growth Backlash Threat: By BECKY O'MALLEY

Tuesday November 30, 2004

The long weekend gave us the opportunity to spend a couple of days in what we still call “the country,” on the property where the publisher’s mother settled after she came to Santa Cruz as one of UCSC’s first faculty members. She called it “the ranch”—about 60 rocky acres, a fair portion of which is pretty much vertical, mostly covered with second growth redwoods and eucalypts planted at the turn of the 20th century. The driveway through the woods is about a mile long, rutted dirt with seven switchbacks, an easy ascent for the benefit of the horses who pulled wagonloads of supplies up to the summer camp operated by the owners at the time, but a challenge for automobiles.  

The camp’s long gone, replaced right before World War II by a “modern” country cottage—concrete slab floors covered with linoleum tiles, industrial sash windows, knotty pine paneling—which is now used by the extended family on vacation. My mother-in-law, who was an artist as well as a professor, added her own touches, notably a studio in a prefabricated barn shell and a concrete-block chapel where many of her paintings hang. A stable was converted by hippies in the ‘60s to a house—it’s now the home of a young family with three kids who look after the two aged horses, four peacocks and some goats too mobile to count which are the remains of what was once a sizable menagerie. Another rustic outbuilding now houses the woman who cared for my mother-in-law in her old age, along with a son who is starting junior high in town. In the former water tower, built of old growth redwood by the original owners, lives a winemaker who has a small stand of organic grapes which he makes into organic Kosher wine by hand, only his own hands because of religious requirements. A retired hippy lives in the woods in an old RV. A typical Santa Cruz Mountains establishment of the old school, in other words, home to eight full-time residents and many more from time to time.  

The reason it’s “the country” in quotes is that when you look up to the top of the hill above the property you now see, somewhat disguised but definitely there, a line of expensive homes, probably these days a couple of million dollars a pop. The country road which goes to the bottom of the driveway has a couple of new houses on it every time we come: respectful county-style houses, some of them pretty fair copies of the frame Victorians which have stood there for more than a hundred years, but new, and pricey.  

Santa Cruz County is experiencing feverish growth these days, spilling over from Silicon Valley and generated by UCSC’s industry-fueled expansion. The city of Santa Cruz is building condos and bikeways and praying for transit and grocery stores just like Berkeley is, but people there still want houses in “the country,” and who could blame them? Even with the slowdown in the economy Santa Cruz’s new rich can still afford to build. But if everyone moves to the country it’s no longer the country, but what they used to call on the East Coast the Exurbs: home to people who don’t have to be at work every day at 8, and who are well paid for the privilege. And their megahomes take up a lot of land. 

All of this description is a long-winded prelude to a quick pointer to Oregon’s 60-40 vote on Nov. 2 against the state’s panoply of smart-growth restrictions on population expansion into the countryside. If the vote stands up to legal challenges, the state might have to compensate—at ruinously expensive levels—property owners who can’t turn their rural land into exurbs or even suburbs.  

It’s just plain foolish to believe that building more condos on tram routes in Portland has prevented people who can afford them from wanting ranchettes outside town. Despite the efforts of some smart growth theorists to turn “backyard” into a pejorative term, people with families, even people with modest incomes, still want those backyards, and will commute for hours to get to them. The pent-up demand is there, and it has created a much more extreme-than-necessary reversal of some very important environmental restrictions: The baby has been tossed out along with the bath water.  

The same thing could happen in California. The facile solutions offered by smart growth ideologues might backfire here too, turning angry refugees from too much growth in their city backyards into equally ideological property rights advocates along the lines of the Oregon majority voters. There are no easy answers, and no one has a monopoly on smarts. It’s time for dialogue instead of ultimatums, and for realism from all participants. 

—Becky O’Malley›