We buy our future.

An essay by Joe Symons

In the ongoing discussion about whether or how to reconcile the vision statement in the new San Juan County Comprehensive Plan with the buildout population implied by the existing land use density map, it may be useful to reflect on the observation that "you get what you pay for." I believe that any set of strategies and/or policies suggested to bridge the gap between our desire for a tolerable future and acheiving it must ask us all, in serious, real terms, to put our money where our mouths are.


Briefly, the issue before all of us is described as follows: the land use density designation map, developed in 1979 at the time of the creation of the first comprehensive plan for San Juan County, indicates the minimum number of acres required for each residential structure. Thus an R-10 designation requires that each residence be 'surrounded' by ten acres. At the time of the creation of this 'density' map, those who developed the plan never asked how many residential structures, in total, might be created if every property in the county were subdivided to it's maximum density and had a house on it. When this maximum subdivision occurs, we as a county are said to be at 'buildout'; this means that no more residential structures can be built. Buildout exists, for example, in Martha's Vineyard, another island community on the east coast. The total population at "buildout" is estimated by taking the average number of occupants per residence, currently about 2.2 people per house for San Juan County, and multiplying it by the total number of residences. For San Juan County, this estimated buildout population is about 50,000 full time residents. This total estimated buildout population does not include the population represented by part time residents and visitors. During peak periods, such as the month of August, the ratio of full time residents to part time residents and visitors has been estimated to be about one to one. Thus, at "peak", for every full time resident, there is one additional person 'in-county' who is either a visitor or a part time resident. Hence an estimated buildout population of 50,000 full time residents becomes, during August, an estimated total in-county population of close to 100,000 people.

No one I have ever discussed this projection with finds it acceptable. Everyone believes that a county population of this magnitude is entirely inconsistent with the vision statement in the Comprehensive Plan, which defines the vision of the county.

The central problem is that while no one likes this scenario, few can imagine a way to avoid it. Some choose to avoid the issue through denial. They would argue that the numbers are impossible, that it will never happen, that all kinds of factors will intercede to prevent it from happening. The theory here is that some 'limit' on total population will occur spontaneously, without any governmental role, regulation or decision; that, in effect, everyone will 'do the right thing' to keep the population at some level which residents today think is acceptable.

The fact that such spontaneous self-control has never demonstrated itself in any small beautiful community anywhere in the world does not diminish their belief that it will occur here, presumably just in time. This is the 'miracle' scenario, and sees the county resident as redeemed by unseen forces. The sub-text is that the citizen is helpless and an altruistic force steps in and 'saves' the county. One might call this the Bill Gates scenario, in which some wealthy benefactor simply buys up every available lot and turns them all over to the San Juan Preservation Trust. This sugardaddy fantasy allows us who are here now to have our cake and eat it too; not only is it unrealistic, but it reinforces the notion that we are weak, spineless, dependent wimps who have to be bailed out by an outsider since we're not smart enough or dedicated enough to solve our own problems. The scenario assumes we need a hero, not only rich but generous. Get real: anyone that rich isn't dumb. They'll buy the land all right. Then subdivide and sell it for a wad. The rest of us will kick ourselves because we didn't do the same thing and no one will remember that the point was to preserve the place, not trash it.

Others who don't like the buildout population projection choose to position themselves as helpless. They assume that nothing can or will be done. They accept the inevitability of this buildout scenario. They accept a 'citizen as victim' role, blaming both the government for inaction and their neighbors, in general, for selling off their land. These are the handwringers.

Both of these scenarios assume that the problem of too many people cannot be solved by a collective, careful, comprehensive, consensus-oriented, citizen-constructed process. They paint the problem as insolvable by ordinary means and thus silently imply that our process is fundamentally non-democratic.

To those who say we cannot limit population, recall that San Juan County already has a limit on a maximum estimated population: it is the population based upon the current buildout densities mentioned above. The only real issue is whether this population is acceptable, not whether the legal basis for it exists. As of now, it's the law. Without active intervention, it will occur.

The glass is half full.

Problems can be avoided or faced, the central theme in the Lion King. Simba was a handwringer-he believed his future must be avoided because his past could not be reconciled. He was stuck until Rafiki smacked him on the head, pointing out that there were only two choices: run from the past or learn from it.

As citizens, we can run from our past (avoid the issue) or learn from the experiences of others. We have to start from the position, as Rafiki did, that solutions exist: they simply need to be revealed.

I believe that we should start our search for a solution by considering the time frame implicit in our purchases.There are few things I can think of where payment for something isn't a payment for one's future. A haircut has a 6 week future. A tank of gas might last me a week or so if I follow my usual schedule. A meal takes me a few hours. No matter what I buy, I buy to use it in my future. I certainly can't use it in my past, and if it only lasts now, right now, it's over as quickly as a breath or a kiss. Nice, maybe wonderful, but gone. I can't use it or have it again tomorrow.

Taxes, like groceries, are just another purchase for my future: they buy police to enforce the laws that someone will break, fire trucks to put out fires that will occur, asphalt to repair potholes that will appear as more and more people drive on the roads. Like it or not, it turns out that the more people there are, the greater the need for these and other public services. Taxes don't just stay the same as people move in, they rise. 'New' population doesn't pay its way, and never has.

Besides raising our taxes, 'new' population also competes for the same services that the old population did: the same parking spaces, the same post office counter, the same movie theater. Lines are longer, you have to get somewhere sooner to get a place to park, you will wait longer than you did until someone builds a new place to compete with the one that used to be fine till there were so many more people. With the new place, for a while, the lines won't be as long, but consequently the town has grown bigger, one new business at a time. The roads are more crowded, parking is less convenient, you can't stop the car to chat with someone on the street because now there is a line of cars behind you.

There's nothing really wrong with this picture. Small places have grown bigger and changed since the country began. 500 years ago, Manhattan was more rural than Orcas. A fundamental question before the citizens in San Juan County is, will this growth process ever stop? Should it stop? Do we care how big the county gets? The underlying choice is: do we want to be reactive, to solve problems after they are serious and require solution (like new law enforcement buildings because we've got a lot more crime than we used to have because, golly!, there are more people here) or do we want to be proactive, determining that there is a size above which we don't want to grow?

Another way of phrasing this is: do we want to choose to avoid the issue and be dragged into our own future, resisting investments in our county's infrastructure until we're forced into purchasing them (wider roads, more schools, deeper wells, etc.), ever complaining that we want to control our taxes yet welcoming new people who's inevitable consequence will be to both raise our taxes while moving us toward an elitist suburbia like every other discovered paradise on earth, or do we want to choose our future, actually buy our future as thoughtfully as we purchase a new truck, a new home, a college education for ourself or our child?

I believe we should consciously, actively, deliberately choose our future and develop ways to pay for it. We should figure out what it costs to purchase and retire development rights, figure out fair and equitable ways to share the costs among the stakeholders who care about the county's future (current residents, aspiring residents and visitors), and systematically make it happen. I think we can avoid all the uncertainty and anger about property rights if we make it clear that we're simply going to buy the rights rather than "take" the rights. No one would refuse to sell to Bill Gates. Why then refuse to sell to yourself, your community, your children, your future?

I believe we can, as well, weave choices for retaining the diversity of our population into the tapestry of our future. We can develop methods for encouraging a wide mixture of income and age diversity to sustain and vitalize our county. We can develop methods to encourage a wide mixture of economic activities, supplementing and ultimately replacing our current mix, dominated now by activities that systematically ratchet us toward a future we say we don't want.

To do this, we'll have to develop options, study them, choose among them and pay for them. People do this all the time when selecting breakfast cereal, bathroom tile, college educations, a new home, and cancer therapy alternatives. It's real, it's serious, it affects their future, there is uncertainty, and not making a choice is making a choice. I believe in the vision statement and I believe we can collectively make that vision a reality. What do you believe?

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© 1995 Joe Symons