Friday, October 27, 2006

Measure A: What Does It Conserve?

Some thoughts on Measure A: The "Santa Clara County Land Conservation Initiative". I'd have a hard time pulling these thoughts together into a common theme, but that's fitting: Measure A itself is scattershot in its approach.

Proponents of the initiative claim it will "preserve our region as a desirable place to live and work." Opponents claim it "threatens the survival of farming in our county, endangers our economy and jobs, and encourages premature annexation of rural lands and sprawl." After reading the actual text of the initiative, my impression is that it doesn't have the potential to do as much good nor cause as much damage as either side claims.

Many parts of the Santa Clara landscape that probably pop into your mind when you read the word "conservation" aren't covered by this initiative: Coyote Valley, the 101 corridor to Gilroy, the open space around Stanford University. Furthermore, most of Measure A's changes are tweaks to existing county land use policy.

Still, it's a poorly thought out proposal and should be rejected. If we're going to undertake the serious business of mucking with people's property rights, which ultimately means mucking with their livelihoods, we should know what we are doing.

I think most people would say that one of the major goals of land conservation is environmental protection. How Measure A's bumping up an already large minimum size for rural parcels by an arbitrarily-chosen factor would necessarily translate into more environmental protection is fuzzy. Also, a lot of the measure is concerned with preserving sight lines and other aesthetic concerns. While an uninterrupted view of a ridge line looks more environmental-ish, it shouldn't be confused with actual environmental protection. Intelligent land use planning for environmental protection would, for example, be more concerned with limiting pollution, preserving habitat, and establishing easements for wildlife migration routes for wildlife than setting arbitrary size and building limits on uncoordinated parcels of land.

Section 9, which lays down some rules that say you can't develop where there's fire danger or inadequate plumbing makes some sense. But, I imagine there are already regulations covering that kind of thing.

Finally, if you are concerned with high housing prices in Santa Clara County, think twice before voting for Measure A. The biggest driver of high prices in our county are all the restrictions we have on converting land to residential use, and restrictions on housing density. I'm not advocating runaway development of all our remaining rural areas, but I do want to point out that land consevation entails serious economic tradeoffs.


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