Balancing Progress With Preservation

by Carolyn Chase
November, 2002


The following is a condensed version of remarks from a speech I made to a San Diego Chamber of Commerce audience, entitled “Balancing Progress With Preservation.”

ask you to say yes to balancing progress with preservation – and yes, also, to acknowledging that progress has been completely out of balance with preservation for at least the past 100 years. Let's also discuss the impacts of commerce on the environment and quality of life which are undeniable, regardless of whether you disagree with the solutions for reducing and mitigating those impacts.

    California's fragmented and competitive local land use planning structures and over-dependence on drive-alone transportation have contributed to a markedly deteriorating quality of life plagued by:

  • Air pollution
  • Traffic congestion
  • Strained and polluted water supplies
  • Strained and polluting sewage systems
  • Loss of valuable food-producing lands and open space
  • Increased numbers of endangered species due to loss of critical habitat
  • Energy crises
  • Overdependence on foreign oil
  • Lack of affordable housing
  • Lack of jobs/housing balance
  • Increasing health crisis, especially for children, with increasing rates of obesity, asthma and diabetes

    While laudable progress can be cited in many areas, the overall status quo is for more time-consuming battles and delays, where none of us get what we need: a plan for both conservation and prosperity.

    I have come to believe that creating such a plan is the only way to achieve the consensus and funding needed to do much of anything about personal mobility – in addition to anything really meaningful about the movement of cargo and goods.

    What we're talking about really isn't rocket science. But it is fundamentally democratic political science and, if I can use the term, I would like to point out the importance of community science: the integration of the community productively into the process.

    By that I mean working in good faith with the people you expect to pay for public infrastructure to support the growth you all want for this region. Growth doesn't happen magically. It is driven by the all the cultural, political and legal mechanisms at our disposal.

    There is a lot of talk about efficiency and streamlining. But too often this is defined by industry as the elimination of community participation. This becomes more and more problematic when it is also those same pesky people whose taxes you are trying to raise to pay for infrastructure needed to accommodate growth.

    What would it look like to work together to decrease costs, fund what needs to be funded, and enforce our common interest in quality of life, a healthy relationship with our environment, and a prosperous and vibrant region? Along those lines, I'd like to share a personal story from inside the trenches of land development battles. This is a pure insider story about the design of SR-56 and related infrastructure, open space and development footprints in what's known as the Future Urbanizing Area.

    The stage was set when a public vote was required to build the area out. I will never forget the very first serious negotiating session between the Sierra Club representatives and Pardee representatives, leading to what would become Prop M. David Lyman, one of the grand old men of Pardee, was personally going to oversee this decision.

    When we all sat down together, there was that awkward moment: what are we doing here together? Mr. Lyman broke the ice with the kind of clarity only a principal can bring to the table: “I'm here because fighting you at the ballot box was like flushing a million dollars down the toilet.”

    He proceeded to discuss whether we could find a way to work together. They would promise to keep their end of the deal and they asked that we keep up our end, and we worked forward on that premise. It took many months and many other groups were involved including, most notably, the Carmel Valley Planning Group.

    At about the same time, the principals for Black Mountain Ranch also approached us. Volunteer committees were assigned, and the results of these two processes were Propositions K and M. Both passed by small majorities on the 1998 fall ballot.

    Here's my point. And it's a point we all know – but it is seldom acted upon.

    When people of good will work together with integrity, then big results can be achieved. When interest groups pursue their own agendas – without integrating them with the community and the environment and the financing – then that's a consistent recipe for increased costs and stupid delays.

    Here's the “bad news.” We are not going away. San Diegans are not likely to decrease their skepticism about increasing taxes. There is substantial evidence that concern for the environment and conservation is growing in our region – and that concern about higher taxes is as well. At the same time, people care about how we deal with growth.

    If we care about quality of life and we care about the economy and we care about the environment – and we know that we all do – then we have to get real about the process and the funding. You cannot expect that taxpayers are going to hop on board with non-solutions like many that are still being blithely pursued in this region.

    With this, I include the notion that – in a post 9/11, as well as a post-El Toro world – you will ever sight a new commercial airport at Miramar. And it won't be because of environmentalists that you would be tied up in court for years. It's because people are not looking at the situation in the appropriate context of what is really workable and doable and fair. They are instead coming at the process with the same old predetermined ideas: ideas that will only lead to more failure because they are not dealing with the real issues.

    The question becomes: why don't we pursue real solutions? Why don't we grapple with and reconcile conflicts? I ask the same question about all the other conflicts between transportation and land use. Why can't we all share the insight and wisdom of Mr. Lyman: that it's cheaper to work together and do it right than to fight about it and pay the prices in other ways – time, money and a continuing disconnect between interests? Truly, it's our common interest to work together.

    The answer is to actually deal with the issues that can be dealt with, with integrity and good faith.

    Working in our democratic system, it's difficult not to develop a battleground mentality because it's dominated by people fighting each other in ways that create losers as some become winners. A lot of people say that they want that illusive “win-win” – but name-calling can become the order of the day and emotions replace negotiations with personality politics.

    I stand before you accused of helping people increase costs and delays. But I would remind you that “NIMBY” also stands for “Next Time It Might Be You.” I have seldom run into activists pursuing an issue casually, or because they had a lot of extra time and money to spend on fighting city hall. Whether they are right or wrong, they are usually arguing based upon something they believe is real.

    There are too many unfortunate stories where a real lack of communication between parties, along with misunderstandings about technical details, lead to ridiculous entanglements. Unfortunately, the agencies involved often have no interest in clearing up the conflicts. In fact, they often fan the flames of conflicts, or block resolution. The sewage treatment conflict is such an issue. But my point is that it's just as time-consuming, risky, and costly for environmentalists and community members to battle as it is for project proponents. Many of us would rather be for something, and not just against the project-of-the-month.

    Resistance to doing the right things also leads to delays and increased costs. And when you have to do them “right” later, you want to blame the system. But the system is rarely arbitrary or capricious. Frankly, it is the flexibility of the system that also increases costs and delays. The final lawsuits that blocked SR-56 were due to prior land-use decisions that never should have gone forward. The city sowed the seeds of its own problems by permitting houses too close to proposed freeway rights-of-way.

    The sooner you deal with issues in the design process, the cheaper it is to bring the right product before decision-makers. But because we don't really have integrated plans, and it seems like everything is negotiated, it's hard to get the certainty that investors – or citizens – would like. Similar to the Master EIR used by CCDC, I would very much like to create a real, workable, regional prescriptive plan that, once understood and agreed upon, could allow for the components to be financed and built. But we simply do not have a functional regional plan, nor an accountable approach to financing, or even defining the best-performing infrastructure mix.

    I believe we could work much better together to improve agency staff performance and accountability. Another common problem we all have is misleading, incomplete and conflicting interpretations and representations of data.

    Finally, let's talk about the whole legal system thing. To those of you who bash citizens or non-profits for the tiny number of poorly funded lawsuits brought by environmental groups in San Diego: give me a break. The day you all renounce your legal counsel and agree never to litigate the many issues you are all pursuing in court is the day I'm sure environmentalists and other citizens will also reduce their use of the legal system to achieve justice. There is no “war chest” I'm aware of for environmental law suits. On the contrary, the war chest appears to be with the business community.

    In closing, let's talk about how we define progress. What and who do we include in that progress?

    It's easy to say we want to retain or even improve our quality of life. It's harder to define and harder to fund. But it is inextricably part of our civic and public duty to define and fund.

    Only when we do define it – in terms that the public can understand and believe in – will we be able to persuade people to vote to pay for it.

    The people most interested in solutions must actually work together to lead, because our elected leaders mostly follow. Right now, I see too many people who still like to whine about the costs on your side, whine about growth on ours, and on all sides point fingers while not seriously addressing the real technical, financial and political issues involved.

    Only when enough of the leaders of the business community have that same insight as Mr. Lyman – that's it's more profitable to work with people than fight – will we make any real progress on regional infrastructure issues in this region. And even then, it will take a hell of a lot of hard work and luck. It may also require the much talked about directly-elected regional government. But none of this can be dealt with without us working together rather than continuing the battleground mentality. And I came here to speak to you today because I believe that San Diego is indeed a lucky place – and that we can provide the hard work.

    City, citizen, civility, civilization all have the same Latin root: civitas, referring to both the freedoms and responsibilities of civic life. The city is the foundation of civilization and democracy. The quality of public spaces and the right of access of all citizens to it are absolutely vital to any city and the maintenance of civility and democracy. It is also vital to the economy of the city and to the physical, social and spiritual well-being of its citizens.

    In closing, it is the citizen in you that I wish to appeal to, in addition to your important role as a business person and defender of commerce. I ask you to also participate in these processes as a citizen, to integrate and make progress on our common concerns: quality of life, prosperity and environmental health and sustainability.

    Progress vs. preservation is a false choice. We must have both. Preservation is essential to progress. Progress must be linked to preservation. Progress linked to public tax dollars must support the public good as democracy defines it, not just as commerce would define it.

    We may not always agree. We may not always like each other. But instead of polarizing along the any number of ways we could be divided, rather let's work together to create an integrated path for us all to succeed.