Last week, I covered a new California law that would preempt municipal zoning in the Bay Area to allow for denser development near BART stations. I mentioned that the state should apply this thinking to other metro areas, because NIMBYism in them is just as troublesome. When it comes to urban upzoning, NIMBYs explore all the options, and their elected representatives fall in line. As a result, developers often look to the fringes, where there are fewer neighbors to object.
At the same time that California is contending with large scale wildfires, a large development is proceeding in a rural section of northern Los Angeles County that is particularly vulnerable. Tejon Ranch, located just beyond the “Grapevine” mountain range pass, is the site of a multi-acre development just approved by regional planners. It’s in a higher-risk region for fire, and has been at rick before. Back in 2013, a large fire came quite close to the area. Yet Tejon is just the latest example of a far-flung development deep in the Golden State’s hot, dry pockets. The Inland Empire has grown substantially in recent years, and the push further and further into the Central Valley is well documented. As fires become increasingly common, suburbs which encroach upon forested areas and mountainous areas will be under the gun – and emergency services will grow increasingly strained.
The typical answer is to restrict such development through government edict. At best, this just delays the problem. Sooner or later, if people can’t find affordable housing in one jurisdiction (or state) they’ll move to another. Refusing to upzone near the urban core will serve only to continue this push into more hazardous regions. Outlawing development in these more hazardous regions will ensure that the state continues to become an exclusive enclave of the wealthy. Yet prominent environmentalists tend to block upzoning measures reflexively, based ostensibly on dubious claims about cities’ carbon emissions as compared to more disperse development. Even if legislation to prohibit such development were desirable, it hasn’t been successful at stopping sprawl, as the near unanimous vote of LA’s regional commission demonstrates. Rather there's a tendency to allow sprawl developments, likely because they’re politically easier to build.
Not only does NIMBYism pose a risk to affordability and economic growth, it also imposes risks to the environment – and safety. California, and other states which claim to be opposed to sprawl cannot have it both ways. Deregulating zoning won’t prevent sprawl, but allowing cities to meet demand will take pressure off of environmentally sensitive regions.
Ethan Finlan is the content staffer for Market Urbanism Report, researching housing, transport, and public administration. He is originally from San Diego, and is now based outside of Boston.
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Market Urbanism Report is sponsored by Panoramic Interests, a progressive developer in San Francisco. Panoramic, which is owned by Patrick Kennedy, specializes in 160 sqft micro-units (called MicroPads) that are built using modular construction materials. Panoramic has long touted these units as a cost-effective way to house San Francisco’s growing homeless population. But Panoramic also builds larger units of between 440-690 sqft. To learn more about Panoramic’s micro-unit model, read MUR’s coverage on the firm in its America’s Progressive Developers series. Or visit Panoramic’s website.