Time to stop planning to double population
January 25, 2011
In light of the drama surrounding the planning commission, it might make sense to look at what is happening in the real world here.
The truth is that the Douglas County growth debate is over. It concluded when the State Demographer issued his latest 20-year growth projection last fall: a 2 percent decline in the county’s population over the next 20 years. That’s right, no growth for a generation.
Citizens who voted for a sustainable level of growth in 2002 may feel somewhat vindicated. But the boosters who promoted the growth that has now proven unsustainable succeeded in putting a lot of it “on the books” even though it will likely never come to fruition. Let’s call it a draw and move on.
We are all left with the wreckage. A steep decline in property values, putting many families at risk. Thousands of homes that simply can’t be sold. Commercial vacancies. Many incomplete or abandoned projects. Dozens of approved developments that will never be built. An economy in shambles as the construction industry all but vanished, while little in the way of basic, sustainable industry has come along to replace it. Nor is it likely to, according to the demographer.
Let’s take the measure of the problem. Our population has hovered around 50,000 for most of the past decade. In 2004, I had occasion to meet with then County Manager Dan Holler and current Community Development Director Mimi Moss. Dan said his expectation, and by implication the basis for county governance, was that the county would double in population, to about 100,000. Later reports showed we had put even more zoning in place, for upwards of 125,000 people and the commercial services they would require.
Even then the demographer was saying we’d barely get to 60,000 and is now saying that we’ll be lucky to maintain 50,000. So we’ve planned and based our governance on over twice the population we are likely to have.
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To me this means that the central challenge now facing county government is to make the transition from governing for growth to governing in its absence. Many of the strategies put in place in the past simply won’t work in the future.
I don’t envy those who will govern in this situation. But they have an excellent opportunity to address this challenge in the 2011 master plan update. Ms. Moss plans to seek direction on that project from the planning commission and county commission in February. We’ll learn a lot about our leaders from how they respond.
What might be done? Well, the first step should be to define the problem. We need an accurate and realistic understanding of our economy and how it might evolve and the implications of that for governance here.
We’ve created a lot of feel-good economic wishlists and “strategies” but I’m not sure we’ve done much to understand economic reality here. We also need to understand clearly the economic effects of our excessive inventory of zoning and the governing strategies that have accompanied that. A clear-eyed economic base analysis and/or market feasibility study combined with some serious fiscal analysis could answer those questions.
We’ve planned for 125,000 people, but if we were doing it today half that number would be more realistic. So we might draw a boundary, sort of an urban limit line, around a community of 60,000 or so. Several boundaries actually, around each of our “urban” enclaves. This would allow us to see the size and configuration of a “realistic” community as opposed to the sprawling “unrealistic” community we’ve planned for in the past.
Then take an inventory of development and its status on both sides of that line. Built, partially built, approved but unbuilt, needed and unneeded zoning, etc. Perhaps we should be treating each side of that line differently, supporting development within that boundary, but putting unbuilt or incomplete projects beyond it out of their misery. And taking back much of the unneeded zoning beyond that line granted in the past. And certainly not adding more.
We should review county plans and operations to identify everything linked to or dependent on growth. Since there isn’t going to be any growth we’d be well-advised to rethink our approach to those items.
It would be particularly important to look at the sizing of infrastructure and operations to determine the degree to which they correspond with actual likely growth. Resources are already spread thin. Oversizing infrastructure and operations just extends that problem out into the future.
We also need to take a close look at the details of our demographics. Declining property values and job losses send ripples through our society. Will our socio-economic mix change and what are the implications of that for county operations? Are we at risk of entering some kind of downward spiral, like many of Nevada’s past boomtowns? That assessment could be part of the economic analysis above.
Once we’ve identified the problems caused by our past “over-planning” we could start to look at alternatives for addressing them and begin to develop a strategy for governing in the absence of growth. This seems imperative to me, but some will push to continue the practices of the past. Perhaps already are.
I believe that county government has been a partner in much of the ill-advised speculation that has brought us to this point. To get out of this situation it will be essential for the county to become the enemy of speculation, both within county government itself and out in the broader community. We need sound decision-making based on realistic analysis, not more speculative cronyism. And we must resist those who will use this situation to promote foolish ideas, like yet more unneeded zoning.
This is our reality here. Packing the planning commission won’t change it. Many other communities govern effectively in the absence of growth. So it can be done. Whether we can do it here remains to be seen.
Terry Burnes is a retired planner and a Gardnerville resident.