The Next Step

An essay by Joe Symons

A commentary on population-related issues of buildout and diversity implicit in the proposed comprehensive plan for San Juan County.

The vision statement of the draft comprehensive plan for San Juan County states that county residents consider the quality of their future to be intimately tied to a rural way of life, and that this way of life is to be preserved.

It is clear from the sentiments expressed by many people, including at least one of the County Commissioners, that the buildout population derived from the density designation allocations created in the 1979 comprehensive plan is inconsistent with the fundamental vision of the county's future. Specifically, that the buildout population in the '79 comp plan is much much larger than the maximum county population that would still permit the '94 vision statement to be honored.

Common sense and the GMA both require that the comprehensive plan be consistent (in this instance, that one aspect of the comp plan, the vision statement, be consistent with another aspect of the comp plan, namely the buildout population implied by the density map). Additionally, both common sense and the GMA require that the controlling or determining component in any consistency conflict is the higher order element, and clearly the vision statement is the highest order element in the comp plan. It is the element that serves as the umbrella defining all other elements as subordinate. Thus in resolving this specific conflict, the vision statement is used as the standard to which the buildout population, and by extension the density designations they are based on, must be held accountable.

Two problems are immediately presented for resolution.

The first problem is to determine the maximum population that would still meet the principles expressed in the vision statement. It is clear that as population grows, the "quality of county life" factors expressed in the vision statement deteriorate. At what point in the growth of the county population is the resulting degradation in the quality of life created by that growth no longer consistent with the expressed (i.e., 'vision') wishes of the population? Some people claim we are already at a "maximum" size, and that consequently any more growth will result in a county population inconsistent with the vision statement. Others claim we're already too big. No one has come forth to claim that our '79 buildout population is consistent with the vision statement. (That population, depending on assumptions regarding occupancy ratios, persons per household, and the inclusion of non-permanent residents in the count, varies anywhere from 4 to 10 times the current full time resident county population). For the purposes of the discussion to follow, let us assume that the citizens agree that a buildout population, that is, a permanent resident population, no more than double the existing full time population would meet the standard required by the vision statement. More than double the current population, however, would result in a deterioration of the quality of county life to the degree that it was no longer consistent with the vision statement.

If it is argued that such a determination is "arbitrary", let it be noted that the selection and determination of density designations which was established for the first comp plan was no less arbitrary-individuals sat down and simply allocated certain areas to be R-2, R-5 and R-10, for example, without any additional input other than the "wishes" of the neighborhood where such allocations were to be applied.

Consequently, the buildout population which resulted from that first effort at density designations was one that was arbitrarily, as opposed to methodically, determined. No one in 1979 actually calculated the total county buildout population based upon the collective results of various neighborhood's allocations, then revealed, discussed and certified that the resulting population which could eventually occur was felt to be acceptable by the majority of the voters of the county.

Those who are responsible for the 1994 Comprehensive Plan are not free to hold such a loose standard. The vision statement, and indeed the process by which the entire plan is being built, is predicated upon a recognition that growth can and does cause consequences and that counties must recognize, account for and prepare for those consequences. To argue and do less is to reveal oneself as incapable of rising to the great challenge of our time, or to suggest that solutions which haven't worked in the past are still appropriate for the future.

The second problem is to establish a mechanism to guide the county population growth to be no more than the maximum population as determined by the vision statement standard.

I believe that there needs to be a public/private partnership in order to achieve on the ground the vision that informs our dreams, hopes and plans for this beautiful county. I believe that there can be developed a set of incentives, both positive and negative, which will protect the value, in dollars, of currently undeveloped land without permitting the development rights which exist for that land to be translated into population.

The obvious way to achieve this, in principle, is to arrange for the retirement, purchase or acquisition (by a non-developing entity, such as San Juan County or San Juan Preservation Trust) of existing or potential development rights.

The purpose of this discussion is not to review all the possible incentives or disincentives available, but to structure a plan for the orderly development of the county consistent with the retirement of the development rights "debt", so that we simultaneously achieve development and achievement of the vision-we create a win win situation for county property holders and county residents.

The development rights "debt" is the excess of development rights over the maximum development rights needed to achieve the buildout population. The size of this "debt" is determined by the degree to which the county commissioners will (or will not) re-examine and modify their position not to make any changes in the existing density designation map for the county.

The fundamental plan is to require development rights to be retired coincident with the issuance of development permits (i.e., building permits) in the proportion that the development rights "debt" exceeds the desired (ie., "vision-approved") development potential.

For example, consider the following hypothetical situation.

Suppose that Orcas Island has an existing population of 4000. Assume that this population consumes 2000 development rights (there are thus 2 persons per household) and further assume that the "size" of the development right (one household lives in an apartment, another lives on a piece with a density designation of R-20) is irrelevant. Let's say for the purposes of simplicity of the math needed for this example that the total development rights available are 10,000. That is, if all the currently platted lots and undeveloped property available to be subdivided were developed to the maximum extent permitted, there would be 10,000 (total) lots, of which we are currently consuming only 2000. The ratio of the current consumption of development rights to the total available is 1 to 5, so we can quickly determine that at buildout, we would have 5 times the current population, or 20,000 people. (This can also be simply calculated as 10,000 development rights times 2 persons per household, resulting in the same 20,000 people).

Now, suppose the citizens of Orcas concluded that to have a total population more than double the current population would be to create a quality of life inconsistent with the vision statement. They wish to establish a plan whereby the population can still grow to be twice as high as the current population (surely some will grumble that this is way too high) yet no higher. Examining the buildout development rights table, they determine that to have another 4000 people (to achieve a doubling of the population) they will need to consume another 2000 development rights. That would mean that, at buildout, 4000 development rights would be consumed and 6000 would have had to have been retired. The ratio of development rights that are needed for development (2000 more) to development rights needed to be retired (6000) is 1 to 3. Simply put, for every development right which is to be translated into an actual development, three need to be retired. When the vision-statement 'buildout' population is reached, there will be no more development rights availabe to be consumed or retired. The county will be at its maximum population.

This notion, that development rights are a commodity which can be sold, purchased, relinquished, or donated, leads directly into the notion of the development of a market for such rights. Such a market will immediately arise when the county requires that no new building permit be issued without the applicant's demonstration of the purchase, aquisition or acceptance of three development rights. In order to receive a building permit, those rights must be relinquished to the county or to an approved non-profit non-development entity like the San Juan Preservation Trust. Once retired, the rights can no longer be made available to anyone for development in the county.

This scheme might broadly handle the issue of resolving the "debt" of development rights "given" to the population in the 1979 comp plan. Note that there is no "taking" proposed here. To the extent that all the property rights "given" in '79 are honored (and not rescinded by the commissioners in a possible downzone action), there will be that many more rights required to be obtained by any applicant prior to the issuance of a building permit.

There are some observations regarding this plan that should be made. First, it achieves the vision. Second, it achieves the vision in a manner that leaves no economic crash at the end; that is, it achieves the vision gradually. There is time for adjustment. Third, it does not involve a 'taking'. No one's rights are denied. They are either puchased or donated (and then retired). Having a development right does not mean an owner has an inalienable right to develop something. It only means he or she possesses something which has an economic value that cannot be "taken" by a govenment without "just compensation". People who have development rights will be compensated, tho not necessarily, and not probably, by the government.

While this concept might in principle be used to walk us toward buildout in some rational and appropriate means, we have not as yet addressed the second major issue implicit in the vision statement. The first major issue is "quantity", i.e., the total quantity of people in the county that would be consistent with our vision. The second major issue is that of "quality", which could be roughly translated as "diversity". We want, we desire, we appreciate, we celebrate a diverse population here. We are concerned about gentrification as land prices escalate. Should the above plan be implemented, land prices will continue to rise-short of recommending the county as a national toxic waste dump, there is virtually nothing we can do to stop the rise in land prices. Arguing that nothing should be done regarding the vision statement because a population growth policy will result in rising land prices is irrelevant and moot-land prices will continue to rise and, more importantly, the existing plan already has a growth limitation policy in it. We know we won't be any bigger than the '79 buildout level-the only difference is that it will take longer and the place will be unrecognizable (most would say trashed.)

The challenge, then, is in structuring the incentives and disincentives to favor low and moderate income families to the extent appropriate to achieve diversity. One big direction to point toward is in housing incentives. Perhaps anyone who wanted to build low income housing for himself or as a developer for others would not need to obtain three development rights in order to obtain a permit-maybe only one, or maybe none, depending on the location and income level. Maybe the county could accept donated development rights from individuals who wish to relinquish development rights, get a tax break, and simultaneously designate the relinquished development rights to be allocated toward anyone applying for low or moderate income housing. Individuals who own development rights but have not exercised them might be approached to donate or sell such rights at a lower than market cost for worthy projects. Perhaps the county would waive or modify the requirement for so many development rights to be retired coincident with a building permit for economic development projects that would provide long term (moderate income) employment outside either the construction or tourist industries. Maybe a developer who was exercising a right to develop a piece of property for speculation would be offered an incentive to donate some of the land to a non-profit housing entity (like OPAL) in exchange for requiring less development rights to be retired up front (ie, the developer might be offered an extended period in which to obtain development rights rather than requiring them to be retired prior to the issuance of a building permit).

There are surely a host of incentive and disincentive plans that can be crafted and experimented with, to achieve both the population and diversity goals of the vision statement, in an atmosphere of good will and mutual recognition of the consequences of failure to honor ourselves and our children. I believe that the process of acknowledging the importance of the vision statement in real population terms and constructing a plan which incorporates a consciously-chosen population ceiling in a real, serious, and immediately-implementable mechanism is essential to honor the trust and expectations that citizens of San Juan County have put in their leaders to guide the county toward its future.

© 2000 Joe Symons

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