The Great Ponzi Scheme of Sprawl
I find myself standing here this morning with a mixture of delight and dread. The delight is easy to explain. I’ve been the literary equivalent of a long-distance trucker these past 15 years, hauling my story of this valley from one end of the United States to the other. So being invited to the Town Hall, to speak to the folks who matter most, the people right here at home, is a true honor. The dread stems from the fact that most of my public talks have been readings, not lectures. I am a writer of stories, not a polemicist. I try use my voice to take readers to other voices, not to deliver harangues. And yet we are standing at a place in our history, this valley, where a harangue or two is just what we need. So this morning, if things go right, this will be a town hall in the truest sense of the word. And you’ll hopefully find me somewhere between those stories and that harangue.
I find it especially satisfying to be standing in this hall—the Saroyan, as we approach this summer the 25th anniversary of Bill Saroyan’s death. He taught me that every writer who comes from the land eventually confronts a deep ambivalence about the place that nurtured him. The writer does this one of two ways. He leaves and writes about his place from afar, hoping the distance gives him not only perspective but a rein on his anger and a check on his heart. Or he stays and tries to work it out from within, the past and the present knocking heads and confusing his feelings. If he stays, his writing sometimes misses the mark. This is because the immediacy he has gained by being so close to his subject can bring too much heat and too much passion. I have chosen the latter, digging my heels into native ground, and it can be messy. But I’m still here, trying to get it right, trying to put my finger on this place. And what an odd, paradoxical place it is.
It is decidedly rural, decidedly suburban and decidedly urban. Where else in America can you take a 20-minute drive and go from white suburbia with its brand new schools and football stadiums and 8,000 square foot houses and giant evangelical Christian compounds to the inner city with its gangs and drug-infested neighborhoods to the dead silence of the vineyards and orchards in winter hibernation? No region produces more meth and more milk than this valley. If you want to look at the burgeoning political power of the exurbs, come here. If you want to examine the enduring poverty of rural America, come here. If you want to see concentrated urban poverty and IV drug use unlike any other city in the country come to our inner city.
By my count, there are three basic ways that humans connect to place, and each one is a way of living. The first evolves out of the idea that place is moveable, that you can take home with you or create home wherever your place might be. This becomes an easier proposition because so much of what makes a place unique has been lost in America, swallowed up by the tide of homogenization. If one place looks like the other place, then place is no big deal. And losing a place is no big tragedy. Place is not only moveable, it is disposable.
The second notion of place is the way a historian and social scientist might see place, with the disinterested eye. Place becomes your subject and as a subject it must be separate from your soul. You can live in such a place, become a student of such a place and find some measure of accord with that place because it is your home and your laboratory. But the place is never you and the changes that come to it are never taken personally. You live above the fray.
The third notion of place is one of deep roots and intimacy, a direct connection between a person and place, right down to its earth. I am bound to this place. You cannot separate me from it. As the land is being remade, where is my place? I am tied to this place and yet as it abandons itself, does it also abandon me? Does it allow a place for me to exist? I guess what I want to explore is the notion that place is not simply geography but a spiritual relationship to that geography. It is this relationship that gets lost as the land becomes transformed.
My grandfather, Aram Arax, took the long road to California in the spring of 1920, a migration that covered 7,000 miles by ship and train. There was no turning back. Everything along the way seemed so farfetched to him—the Statue of Liberty, the nation’s capital, the budding factories of Detroit. It wasn’t until the tracks reached Fresno that America came true. Outside his window, at the foot of the Sierra, the San Joaquin Valley shimmered. Vineyards and orchards and vegetable fields, row after perfect row. As the train chugged into town, my grandfather kept muttering the same words in Armenian. “Just like the old land.” The old land was a lazy village beneath the mountain of mist in Bursa, Turkey. He had survived the 1915 Genocide at the hands of the Turks not by out-braving them or outlasting their death marches. Instead, he owed his life to the great French writers, Baudelaire and Maupassant, whose poems and short stories allowed him to dream away long months hiding in an attic in Istanbul. He was among 20,000 young Armenian men, the Army of the Attics, who dodged the Turks by sitting still.
He came down after a year with plans to attend the Sorbonne University and write for a living. Then the letters from his Uncle Ervant in Fresno arrived: “Watermelons as big as small boats. Grapes like jade eggs.” My grandfather was 19 when he took the bait. He might have been forgiven for assuming the best when his uncle drove up to the depot that day in a shiny Model T Ford. This uncle let my grandfather lounge in that bath of milk and honey for three days. Then they headed three hours south on a country road and landed in Weed Patch. There, long before the Okies and Steinbeck arrived, my grandfather did what all poets do when they come to the valley. He dug his knees into the ground and started picking potatoes. Up and down the valley he trailed the harvest. Watermelons, peaches, grapes, oranges and olives. It took him four season working alongside his widowed mother, sister and brother to go from fruit tramp to farmer.
My grandfather loved the idea of farming. Tilling, irrigating, harvesting, pruning–he came to each one as a romantic. But a farmer he was not, at least not the kind who could feed three children and cover his losses at the pinochle table. That poets made poor farmers should have been clear to him early on. Yet he kept growing crops again and again in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Vine hoppers devoured one raisin harvest. Mildew ate another. If the weather was good and the pests light, his own sloth would do him in. Relatives had a one-word explanation for his failure: Politics. He was too busy reading the New Masses, the Marxist monthly, when he should have been walking the rows.
Every family lugs around lugs around a story of lost gold. That last farm along the San Joaquin River became ours. A patient man would have found a way to keep it, Grandma said. A patient man would have been around to see it turn into big fancy houses. By the time I was growing up, the only vineyard in the family was the one in a painting that hung from our adobe fireplace. My grandfather believed, until the day he died, that the end of our farming life, this severing from the soil, is what led to my father’s murder.
It was the land, after all, that brought my grandfather and most of us here. Armenians, Japanese, Swedes, Volga Germans, Molokans, Okies white and black, Italians, Mexicans, Hmong. Many of them traveled thousands of miles only to land smack dab on the same old line of latitude. The Punjab sun was the valley sun. Today, the grandchildren of those first immigrants are watching the land grow a final crop—houses. What happened from one generation to the next? Did farming fail? Did the dream of farming fail? Was its brutal bottom line something they could no longer survive?
My grandfather arrived amid what was arguably the greatest transformation of any valley in the history of man. In thirty short years, we would dam every river busting out the Sierra and create the largest irrigation project the world has ever known. That transformation is too big of a story to even attempt to recap here. But let me focus on one part of the valley—the Tulare Lake basin, a place I know well, a place I wrote about in the book, “The King of California.”
The year my grandfather landed in California saw the coming of a pioneer, a man who had fled the plantation South and was looking to start a new cotton patch out West. His name was Col. J.G. Boswell, and he was the son of a Georgia patrician family who had seen the boll weevil ravage the cotton fields of the South. When he arrived, Tulare Lake was already being drained by man. It sat at the confluence of four rivers—the Kings, Tule, Kaweah and Kern. In years when the Sierra snowmelt was heavy, these rivers raged, and the valley was one great marsh. You could take a boat and navigate your way from present-day Bakersfield to the San Francisco Bay using only lakes and rivers. Tulare Lake, at its height, stretched some 800 square miles across the valley plains. It was the most dominant feature on the California map, big enough to sustain four separate tribes of Yokut Indians. But in dry years, this same stretch became forbidding desert—so harsh that not even the Spanish could conquer it. No mission would ever come here. So the trick was to even out those wet and dry years, to capture and contain the snowmelt with dams and levees. Few rivers have been tamed like the Kings River. It irrigates more farmland than any other river in the world except for the Nile and the Indus—more than one million acres of vineyards, orchards and fields.
Looking back, our first big mistake was taking all the water that coursed down from the Sierra and handing 95 percent of it over to agriculture. Imagine what this valley would look like today if our local, state and federal governments had decided that 65 percent of the water should go to farming and 35 percent remain in the river for the environment and fisheries. Had this happened, much of the marginal land now farmed would have remained fallow. It would have ensured that the water would have gone to the best farms. We would not have the surplus of crops we have today, nor would we be growing low value crops. Because we decided to give all the river to agriculture, we have created a surplus hell–too many fruits, too many raisins, too much milk, too much cotton.
None of the valley’s agricultural miracle came cheap or easy. It took decades of manpower and billions of dollars in taxpayer money to dam the rivers, suck dry the lakes and erect a system of irrigation canals that spread like lattice across the plain. Billions of dollars more in government subsidies helped prop up crops such as cotton. And what did that investment buy? The San Joaquin Valley (from Bakersfield to Stockton) is a singular place in the American landscape. It is the biggest valley–27,000 square miles–in the nation. No farm belt in the history of man has ever produced such diverse crops–250 fruits, vegetables, grains, milk, fiber—in such staggering amounts. Agriculture at a speed and variety never before seen in civilization. One of the world’s wonders–breadbasket and salad bowl and fruit bowl and creamery rolled into one. We built something that no other people on the earth built. The place is not replaceable.
So how do we regard our miracle? I’m afraid to say that we mostly treat it with contempt, with shame. We are embarrassed of its wonder. To embrace what has been accomplished here would mean we’d have to tell the outside world we are proud of our farming heritage. We would have to celebrate this miracle. And that would mean coming off like hicks and hayseeds.
By all measures, this valley is standing right where Los Angeles stood in 1956. Back then, Los Angeles County produced more farm goods than any other county in the nation. A decade later, it didn’t even rank in the top ten. A decade after that, all but a few boutique farms had been paved over. Los Angeles lost its Eden that fast. A few months ago, I began pulling those old stories of the vanishing farmland from our archives at the Los Angeles Times. You can imagine that a paper owned by the Chandler family, which at one time owned more land than any other family in the U.S., didn’t do a whole lot of exposes on the development scandals that transformed L.A. But the stories I did find from the 1950s and 60s knocked me over. They echoed–sometimes word for word–the stories I am now reading and writing about this valley. The same themes, the same quotes, the same hand wringing from farmers and bureaucrats and elected officials. It’s all the same. Looking backward, I can see clearly forward. The same studies, the same futile calls for farmland preservation, the same talk of the need to grow what we eat.
Driving down Highway 99 the other day, I came across the billboards of a national home builder sprinkled in with the billboards promoting our local builders. I must tell you that I have become inured—practically calloused– to their Orwellian way these builders name their project after the nature or farm they’ve paved over. Orange Creek. Heron’s Pointe. Blossom Living. But this one billboard for D.R. Horton homes really got me thinking. It pictured a kid swinging on a big fat oak tree in the middle of open country. And this is what it said, “What grows here lasts a lifetime?” A lifetime? I thought. Just a lifetime?
Over the next 35 years, if our pattern of sprawl does not change, demographers say, the San Joaquin Valley will grow twice as fast as the rest of California and its population will double to 7 million, gobbling up 1.5 million acres or one-third of the best irrigated land. Because the San Joaquin Valley, eight counties covering some 27,000 square miles, boasts a larger agricultural land base than Los Angeles and Orange Counties in their farming heydays, it will take decades longer for suburbia to eclipse the farm.
But the shift from farm to city has now accelerated here so that nearly 14,000 acres of farmland are being lost to urban development each year in the valley–double the average over the previous 10 years, according to state figures for 2000-2002. And this does not include figures for the most recent boom. When Southern California said goodbye to its farms, it pointed to the San Joaquin Valley as its safety valve. “We’ll just get our food from the other side of the mountain.” But what happens when this valley goes the way of Los Angeles? Where is the next valley?
I’ve begun to delve into what I call the two contradictory “pulses” of the San Joaquin Valley, each complete with its own American tragedy. There is the old pulse that still draws thousands of migrants from the depths of Mexico to work in the fields. I recently returned to that ranch in Weed Patch where my grandfather’s story began in America 85 years ago, and I found Triqui Indians from the highlands of Oaxaca digging their knees into the same earth my grandfather dug into. That pulse has not changed. And there is the new pulse that is paving over thousands of acres of the nation’s best farmland with cookie cutter housing tracts and commercial strips, turning a region from Bakersfield to Stockton into a new century’s Southern California. These two pulses will not exist side by side, in parallel worlds, forever. Guess which one will win out. Guess which one will swallow up the other. Big Ag is becoming Big Sprawl. We see it in the story of Dole, which sold out its farms to Paramount Farms but still keeps its development arm, Castle & Cooke.
The San Joaquin Valley now faces the second great transformation in its modern history. Before it is over, demographers and planners say, the nation’s longest chain of sprawling cities will rise here, a 280-mile megalopolis along the spine of Highway 99. The trend seems impossible to stop. Rivers of Farms are becoming Rivers of Suburbia with almost no debate. All this is taking place with the connivance of the federal Bureau of Reclamation, whose managers are meeting in private with real estate developers to siphon water captured a century ago in the name of agriculture.
Right now along the San Joaquin River in Madera, one of the more important legal challenges in valley history is heading to court. It will decide if the sub-dividers or the farmers will hold sway over the river’s water. Farmers such as Giffen have sold thousands of acres along the river to developers such as McCaffrey. The heart of the court case is this: When the river was dammed, the federal government allowed farmers to continue to draw the same amount of water they had always drawn—for farming purposes mostly but also for “domestic” use. Domestic use always has meant that they could use a small amount of water for their house and barn. But developers want to stretch that word “domestic.” They want the federal government to say that domestic means that water can flow not to just one farmhouse but 4,000 domestic farmhouses. So far, the federal government isn’t standing in the developers’ way. A group of farmers along the river are suing. We’ll see what happens.
City after city in the valley is trying to outdo its neighbor by being the first to plant a Super Wal Mart or Target in farm soil. Kingsburg wants to beat Selma and Visalia wants to beat Tulare. Each city competes against the other. Instead of thinking of ourselves as a region–after all, what really separates Fresno from Selma or Selma from Kingsburg—each city competes in a dog-eat-dog way. This is all very reminiscent of something called “The Tragedy of the Commons,” which took place in 18th and 19th century England. This was a time when small farms with sheep and cows shared a common area as pasture. The communal approach worked well for hundreds of years until one farmer got the idea that he could make more profit by expanding his herd and grazing them early–on the spring grass–before his neighbors could graze their herds. Pretty soon, the same idea occurred to the next farmer and the next farmer—we’d better get ours before the neighbor–until the herds grew too big and the common pasture could no longer sustain them. The grass never reached its maturity and died, the commons withered and the herds had to be slaughtered and farms uprooted. The balance had been destroyed and with it, the community.
Am I a fool for believing that this valley’s birthright is agricultural, that if God intended a place to be something, He intended this place to be farm? Surely there were fools like me in Pasadena and Valenica and Van Nuys who believed those orange groves would always be orange groves. As the land and its ethic are being leveled, I ask myself, “What is left for me in this place?”
The cynic might holler “so what.” One culture built on the damming of rivers, the subsidizing of crops, the exploitation of migrants is being replaced by another culture only slightly more greedy and environmentally destructive. Anyone who makes a case that we must find a way to preserve the farm, anyone who argues that agriculture is the highest and best use of this land, must reckon with its downsides. Our nostalgia may be a nostalgia for a valley that brutalizes. The Mexican-Americans who now sit on city councils and boards of supervisor up and down the valley do not hold this same sentiment. When they vote to turn an orchard into a Wal-Mart, they are not nagged by guilt. Juan Arambula, in a moment of brutal honest, once told me this valley has meant but one thing to his people: exploitation.
We must be prepared for those who drive out Highway 152 toward Los Banos and see all that open land and call us Chicken Littles for jumping up and down and shouting that the farm is disappearing. We must be honest about the economics of small farming. Old farmers attached to the soil that has given them a good life try to hang on, but their children who are professionals or tradesmen are softened by no such love of the land—not when it pays them the same price for plums that they got in 1981. How do we insist that a farmer not exercise his option to sell to a developer when what he faces is a farmer in China who can grow the same crop for half the price? Look at what happened on the west side this month. The garlic processor where hundred s of people worked went out of business because he couldn’t compete with the garlic processed out of China. We keep talking about pushing farming vertically—making sure that we not only grow the strawberries but also dip those strawberries in chocolate and sell them to the world. But what happens when the garlic processor just a few miles from the garlic fields goes under? Nostalgia can’t compete with vineyards and orchards in growth’s path jumping from $20,000 an acre a few years ago to $250,000 today. We must be honest that what we are trying to preserve is a mostly industrialized form of agriculture, practiced with excellence by the Boswells and Paramount Farms and the Woolfes and Harrises. We must be honest about its wages and seasonal employments and the peasant workers it brings our way.
And yet farm gets far too much blame for our woes. Poverty here isn’t solely a function of farm. It’s a function of our being the bargain basement for California. You replace all these farms, which produce something real and bring in real dollars from the outside, with big box suburbia and see if unemployment rate goes down, see if poverty goes down, see if out of wedlock births and drug use go down? As long as we remain a cheap place, it won’t matter if it’s agriculture or a service economy that roots us. We will be the port of entry for the most desperate and needy.
A few years ago, I took this notion that “growth is good, growth is inevitable” to Eli Broad, the father of American sprawl. He had built more houses across suburbia than any other man in America, changing the face of big cities from California to New Jersey. Now, in a second act that could not have been further removed from those days at Kaufman & Broad, he seemed to be doing penance. As we sat in his Sun America building 38 stories above Century City, his office at the very top, he made a remarkable confession. The way he paved over the landscape was wrong. The growth he and other home builders brought–cookie cutter houses with strip malls on the far fringe of town–was an economic loser. For every tax dollar generated, California sprawl costs two dollars to sustain with roads, sewers, water, parks, police and fire services. So cities take on bond debt to keep the growth going. Each new subdivision pays for the losses of the subdivision before it. It was a giant Ponzi scheme.
“The costs of urban sprawl are very expensive,” he said with a missionary’s glare. “We’ve got to build closer in, higher densities and do whatever’s necessary to save the farmland.” Broad may have seen the light in his second life as an insurance and investment tycoon and philanthropist but his creation—sprawl–was alive and well and eating its way across Los Angeles to the Mojave desert, through the grapevine and down the heart of our valley, the nation’s last great valley.
So here is the question we must face: if farmland is going to be converted into suburbia, how do we best do that? We can say with some certainty that the way we have been converting it is completely ass backwards. A way that doesn’t pencil out. A way that deadens the soul of people. A way that has created something incredibly ugly.
Cities talk about directing growth to the core in an effort to save farmland, but planning maps show that the vast majority of subdivisions in the valley are being built on the fringe of town, where impacts to farming and costs for roads, sewers and police services are the greatest. In Fresno, for example, nearly 40,000 acres of open land sit in the city’s current sphere of influence even as Fresno is attempting to annex 9,000 acres of farmland on its southeastern flank.
Are we accommodating growth or inducing growth? This latest boom shows we are inducing it by one third. One third of the new houses sold in the past few years were bought by speculators who had no intention of living in those neighborhoods. They were simply trying to flip the land over one more time. More than a quarter of the buyers today are so-called equity refugees who trade in cramped houses in Los Angeles and the Bay Area for 3,000 sq. ft. valley models–with enough cash left over to retire.
As Fresno looks to overtake Long Beach as the fifth largest in the state, officials now project a shortfall of billions of dollars to build streets, parks, police, libraries and fire stations and other facilities to serve the city’s 470,000 residents–and the hundreds of thousands coming in the next 20 years. The reason for the shortfall is plain. In an era when state and federal dollars are tight and politicians are loath to raise local taxes, cities look to developers to pay their fair share of the infrastructure.
And Fresno happens to charge the lowest developer fees of any major city in the state, figures show, not even half of what smaller cities around it are charging. Instead of tapping into successive growth booms to improve the way the city looks and runs, Fresno politicians have granted the building industry hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidy.
I first told this story in the early 1990s. I found that Fresno was failing to extract anything from developers. The conversation was completely different in other places. In San Luis Obispo, for instance, a developer wanting to rezone his land had to sit down with officials and agree to any number of terms. He had to contribute to a pot for downtown art, say, or farmland preservation. Here, there was no such talk, no such negotiation. We continue to see ourselves as a rural outpost that must dangle goodies in front of developers to get them to honor us with their projects. It all goes back to our inferiority complex.
Even as I wrote that story and two follow-up pieces in subsequent years, Fresno refused to charge enough developer fees to offset the costs of growth. The infrastructure was collapsing and yet successive mayors, city managers, development directors and city councils failed to raise the fees to even keep up with inflation. Such an increase is required every year under municipal code. Why such a refusal to make growth pay for itself? Because it would mean crossing people with names such as Bonadelle and McCaffrey and Wilson and Assemi and Wathen—men who have become multi millionaires at our expense.
When McCaffrey makes the argument that he can’t afford to build four small roads to serve his subdivision–that anything beyond two small roads would be an unfair burden—he sounds like he’s running a mom-and-pop operation. When he fights against putting a sprinkler in the kitchens of his new models because it will cost too much, he sounds like he’s barely making ends meet. This is the same McCaffrey who spends millions of dollars on advertising alone and builds a monumental edifice as office on the corner of Van Ness and Herndon.
In the aftermath of Operation Rezone, I came across the records of an extraordinary city council session that said everything about the failure of our leaders. Fresno decided in 1998 to finally address the issue of developer fees. Only it wasn’t to raise them. Responding to complaints from builders about too much cost and red tape, then Mayor Jim Patterson, City Manager Jeff Reid and Development Director Al Solis kicked off a campaign to make Fresno more business friendly.
Among their first targets was the one bureaucratic tool that showed whether growth was paying for itself and whether developer fees needed to be raised. Under their plan, developers would no longer be required to pay for economic studies that projected the costs and benefits of their projects. During the public hearing, only one city councilman, Garry Bredefeld, lodged a protest. How could we get rid of the one tool that told us whether a particular subdivision and strip mall was an economic winner or a loser? he asked. As the council voted 6 to 1 to get rid of the cost-benefit studies, Councilman Chris Mathys gave a parting shot. “It’s too expensive, it’s too cumbersome, it’s too much of a headache to do business with our planning department. People in the industry will be happy with it.”
The rationale offered up by elected officials is that high fees drive up the costs of houses. Fees are anti business, fees are hidden taxes passed on to home buyers, fees drive off builders to other cities, they argue. Never mind, that builders are leaving Fresno for Clovis, a city that charges triple Fresno’s fees. Or that the average price of a new house in Fresno has skyrocketed since 1989–without a single fee hike. Never mind that we have built a city in which the traffic lights don’t talk to each other and you hop from one red light to the other, all the while exhaust fumes fouling the air of the most polluted basin in America.
“Of all the cities I’ve worked with, Fresno faces the biggest challenge because its developers have been under funding the infrastructure for so long,” says Bob Spencer, an Oakland-based municipal finance expert recently hired by the city to update its fee program. With its patchwork services, Fresno may be consigned to the status of third-rate city, a place forever in the sights of Wal Mart but not Nordstroms.
“It’s pretty basic. Good infrastructure is what the best industries and retailers are looking for when they locate to a city,” says Walter Kieser, a Sacramento-based consultant who works with both developers and cities on fiscal issues. “In Fresno, they’ve done such a miserable job with the roads, parks, libraries and schools that they haven’t created a nice place to live. Instead, they’ve allowed developers to just maximize their profits.”
Not a single institutional reform grew out of Operation Rezone. As a result, some of the ringleaders are now lobbying the very public bodies they were convicted of corrupting. Jeff Roberts, who drove around town with the license plate REZONE, has become one of the most influential players in the Fresno development scene, landing on a regional committee that decides how transportation dollars are spent and sitting as a full partner with the city as it drafts a new fee program.
Addressing the issue of sprawl means we must acknowledge the larger dynamics at work:
— The Fresno Development Department works for the developers. Literally. Its revenues are derived from the very fees the department charges developers. Thus, there is no incentive for city bureaucrats to ask hard questions of developers. There is no incentive to act as watchdog. If the city doesn’t grow and projects don’t get approved in a timely manner, the department’s bottom line suffers. We need to change this relationship and start funding the department out of general revenues again.
— A big part of the overall problem is you. The community’s general indifference. If you read the editorial pages of the Fresno Bee in the 1990s, you will see many letters from people protesting the paving over of farmland and the proliferation of housing projects on the outskirts of town. These same people, led by Selma Layne and others, attended council meetings and got in the face of elected officials and bureaucrats. Back then, a genuine anti-sprawl movement seemed to be gathering steam. Under such pressure, the city council did something it had never done before and hasn’t done since: it actually voted down a proposal to build houses. Now the builder came back many months later and was able to get his project through, but people were actually talking about backing a moratorium against growth. And then it all disappeared.
Today, not even a handful of citizens show up to public meetings, much less question why a project is going forward without a full assessment of its environmental and economic costs. There aren’t enough progressives to challenge the private property crowd, or so it seems. No one comes to protest. It’s as if you’ve been beaten into submission. With no countervailing force in this valley, the yahoos will always hold the day. Complacency is no better than cowardice. It leads to the same paralyzing place. Imagine all of you showing up to City Hall when the next controversial project is debated. Imagine the jaws of developers and their lapdogs on the council dropping.
— The confusing role of the Fresno Bee The editorial pages of the paper have worked hard to nip in the bud any talk of a moratorium on growth. When push comes to shove, the Bee doesn’t want to slow down growth. But what if we had a moratorium and said no more growth until those 40,000 acres in current sphere were built out? Or until the fees went up to level that growth pays for itself? Ask the Bee what would be so bad about that?
— And finally there are the accusations that anyone who talks about slowing growth is an elitist. We suffer from a drawbridge mentality, they say. We are NIMBYS. My answer to them is two-fold. Do we call them elitist when the price of their houses double and triple? When the pure profit they take from each house goes from 60 grand to 120 grand, and middle class people can no longer afford to buy a house? Do we call our local builders elitist when they mine this place, squeeze it dry and pollute its air, and then build their dream house in Santa Barbara? You don’t really care about the poor, they accuse us. If you cared about the poor, Mr. And Mrs. Liberal, you’d want to drive down the costs of housing by charging lower fees and making it easier, not harder, to build. But the truth is if we build a quality community that brings in quality industry and quality jobs and parks and libraries, who does that benefit most? It benefits the poor person. The rich person can have those things with or without the community. If the wealthy hanker for clean air or nice parks, the can get their fill by vacationing in Capitola or Hawaii. So by creating a city of quality, you create a city of opportunity. And who benefits most from that opportunity? The poor and middle class. A broken down city, a city without infrastructure and amenities, hurts the poor the most. The middle and upper class can rise above the deficits of this community. The poor cannot.
There are only so many dollars in a community to invest and if those dollars are always fleeing to the fringe, the core will never be reinvented. I visited Pasadena and Glendale a few weeks ago—two cities that stopped building houses years ago. To follow the logic of our builders, you would think both cities are dying on the vine. But both are booming. And the boom is all taking place in the core. Dollars are being invested in neighborhoods that already exist. We, on the other hand, haven’t achieved a realistic value because we haven’t been charging a realistic cost. We’ve artificially cheapened this place. We’ve created a place that is undervalued. We have to insist that this valley find its real value. We have to insist that growth not hightail it to the fringe of town. If not, we will continue to boast the most concentrated poverty in the nation.
We all have a pretty good idea what our city councils and board s of sups are up to, where they stand on issues of growth and how easily they are bent toward the desires of the boomers. But there is another local agency that we pay very little attention to, and it has a lot to say about our mad dash toward prime farmland. That agency is LAFCO, the Local Agency Formation Commission. It sounds like a mouthful but it’s essentially a state agency at the local level that decides what land in each county should be annexed to cities for growth. What people often do not realize is that LAFCO’s main purpose is to preserve farmland, to act as a brake against sprawl, to steer growth away from vineyards and orchards and open space. But in Kern, Kings, Tulare, Fresno, Madera and Merced counties, LAFCO’s are acting like rogues.
Let me take you back to a LAFCO meeting in Fresno County in January 2005. Before the commission’s board that day was a proposal by the city of Fresno to add 9,000 acres of farmland to its future growth sphere. This was one of the largest such expansions ever in California. During the hearing, the Fresno LAFCO did something that the LAFCO in Riverside, San Bernadino and Sacramento said they would never do. It failed to consider a wide range of impacts to the air, water and prime farmland protected by the Williamson Act. Then it voted unanimously to expand the growth sphere.
So the one local commission set up by the state to act as a brake against leapfrog growth has become a consistent rubber stamp for developers. How did this happen? Well consider that no one from the general public was there when the LAFCO board voted to approve the 9,000 acre annexation. Inside the hearing room was a handful of developers and me. The Fresno Bee wasn’t there. The Farm Bureau wasn’t there. Indeed, the president of the Fresno County farm bureau happens to be one of the biggest land developers in the region. Pat Ricchiuti has sold more than 400 acres of vineyards and orchards to Cambridge Homes (Lennar Homes) for more than $60 million over the past few years.
I recently called up Ricchiuti and asked how he could sell so much farmland in Fresno and still wear the hat of the Fresno County Farm Bureau president. He hesitated only a second “We are custodians of the land, the best custodians, but everyone has a price threshold,’’ he said. “ I do agree that some of the best land is being covered over, but that’s where people have decided to live. They didn’t put Fresno in the foothills. I was surrounded by houses. What was I going to do?”
Even though Ricchiuti has reinvested some of his profits in buying more farmland in outlying counties, it would seem that his two hats are incompatible. He should have the decency to remove the hat of farm bureau president in a county where he has chosen to sell the farm. And yet right behind him is another former president of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, who is converting his own Harlan Ranch into suburbia. The Clovis City Council has given him the green light even though he lacks water and his land was slated for industrial development.
In preparation for this lecture, I spent a few weeks talking to demographers and urban economists, as well as several old timers and natives who decided to leave the valley. What follows is a sampling of what they say about the challenges we face:
— “You can’t save a place that doesn’t want to save itself. In some ways all you need to know about Fresno is a drive down Blackstone Avenue. It happened 40 to 50 years ago, but if a place can live with a Blackstone, allow it to happen and continue to live with such an eyesore at its heart, then why would it object to all that is happening today? Fresno doesn’t think any better of itself. It believes it deserves that ugliness.”
–About the Regional Jobs Initiative. “I applaud their efforts, but they’re not being completely honest. Most of the new jobs they’re touting are jobs that simply follow sprawl. Basically low skilled and low wage service jobs or construction jobs. It’s a function of an area going through rapid residential expansion. Maybe three out of every four of these jobs are service and retail and 25% are business and professional.”
–“It may be fatalistic to say that the valley’s role today is the same one that it’s played all the way back, a way station for people coming from worse economic conditions. We remain the state’s bargain, the port of entry.”
— “Let’s call this rush to Clovis and places north what it is: keeping one step ahead of the Hmong and the Mexican. Those evangelical compounds on Nees Avenue want nothing to do with people of color.”
My own prediction is that there will be another bust and another boom, another bust and another boom, but the end game over the next half century will not change. We will sprawl out in the manner described and the core will always be left hollow. Consider our place fully warned. What we are pursuing already has been pursued on the other side of the mountain. We have the example of Los Angeles before us. Los Angeles didn’t have Los Angeles as a case study. So we cannot plead the same ignorance. Left to its own devices, the valley will always settle for less. Left to its own devices, the valley will grow into a colossal wreck. It will be Los Angeles without the movie business, without the thriving small industries, without the west side, without the ocean, without the Getty museum and Disney Hall. It will be a place where urban planners will come to study the most stubborn case of sprawl. The air will be worse than anything else in the United States and the entire landscape will bring to mind Mexico City.
This is the worst case. I would be remiss if I didn’t offer up the possibility of another vision, one in which we manage to keep the best farmland and grow in an orderly manner that reinvents the middle. To do this, we must first accept the premise that no local or state agency will come forward with a plan to save us. It will fall to us, one by one, to join hands and declare a new day. Time is running out. Perhaps we have a decade to make this shift, to start planning regionally and stop the tragedy of our commons.
Right now in Merced County, where agrarian voices remain strong, farm advocates are launching a proposal that would have seemed radical a decade ago. Why not declare the valley’s farmland a precious resource not unlike the California coast or the Bay Delta? Such an area, they argue, cannot be protected by local politicians beholden to developers. Instead, land use decision should be handed over to permanent state commission that will be charged with protecting farmland in the name of national security and the need to feed ourselves. This commission will look over the shoulder of local agencies and be empowered to overturn premature annexations and rezones. The plan is to launch a statewide initiative and sell the idea too voters in the Bay Area and Southern California. “Save Farmer John” will be the battle cry. “Save what’s left of our rural roots.” This initiative won’t garner much support from the valley itself. The forces of greed–and those who believe private property rights reign supreme–are too strong. But it might not matter if we can muster strong support from the grassroots. It may be our last chance to save our place.
If we can find a way to honor both our old and new pulses, build a community of quality and sustainability, will might finally stop the brain drain that afflicts us. Only then might we find and keep a new generation of Lew Eatons and Roger Tatarians and Tom Kirwans and Frank Moradians. I look forward to that day……….