Saturday, January 29, 2011

Good Development

I had a flashback this morning to an event that I attended when I was running for County Council: the Northwest Business Club candidates’ lunch. I had been warned about the hostility and partisanship, but I can’t say that I was prepared for the rancor in the room.

One question, in particular, stood out. A woman asked me, “Has the Whatcom County Council done anything that is good for business?” When I hesitated for a moment, she said, in a voice dripping with sarcasm, “Now, that was a tough one, wasn’t it?” The point that I was trying to make was drowned out by laughter (and believe me, they weren’t laughing with me).

I know what she was getting at, of course. She was talking about the California developer who bought up two five-acre lots and told his rural neighbor, “It’s great up here! It’s like the 1950s – they let you do anything you want!” She’s talking about the development community – the big developers – one of whom told me why developers support the current Council: “Sam Crawford doesn’t care if it’s good development or bad development. If it’s development, he wants it.”

We don’t talk about good and bad development in this county, in those words, and I think that we should. Otherwise, our thinking is fuzzy. During the campaign, my opponents called me both “anti-development” and a “city girl.” How can both be true? Someone who likes cities is, by definition, pro-development.

The “city-girl” jibe was intended to convey that I couldn’t appreciate the rural “county lifestyle,” the focus of which was made out to be. . . more development. Scratch your head over that one – I did. I grew up on a hundred-acre farm, and apparently that “rural lifestyle” isn’t what my opponents had in mind in relation to Whatcom County’s “rural” areas. “Rural” here apparently means “increasingly crowded.”

I like interesting, exciting cities because I like good development. I try to avoid the Guide Meridian because I don’t like bad development. I’m not unique in these preferences. Good development, as it turns out, is pretty much what the Growth Management Act thought that it was back in 1990. And that’s according to the market, not according to me.

There’s been a spate of articles recently, ranging from the Washington Monthly to the Wall Street Journal, reporting that the two major demographic groups affecting the housing market – “millennials” and retiring baby boomers – don’t want what the County is so determined to provide: more suburban-style housing spreading out away from urban areas. The Wall Street Journal article points out that 88% of the millennial “Generation Y” wants to live in urban areas. The Washington Monthly article emphasizes that “the Great Recession has highlighted a fundamental change in what consumers do want: homes in central cities and closer-in suburbs where one can walk to stores and mass transit. Such ‘walkable urban’ real estate has experienced less than half the average decline in price from the housing peak.”

Whatcom County, and Washington state in general, should have a competitive advantage. We should be poised to take advantage of these market trends because they align so neatly with the goals of the Growth Management Act: to create great, vital urban spaces, provide affordable infrastructure, and prevent the “inappropriate conversion of undeveloped land into sprawling, low-density development.”

When Whatcom County stops fighting these goals tooth and nail and starts promoting good development, it will be good for business. Good development is good for the public at large, and good for our children. Good development provides jobs, opportunities, and attracts businesses and tourists. Good development doesn’t threaten our important agricultural industry, and it doesn’t require the enormous taxpayer-provided subsidies for new roads, police, and fire services that we’ve been paying over the past couple of decades. Good development complies with the law, and good developers work within the law.

And if you know how to make the Northwest Business Club listen to that perspective, much less agree with it, please – run for County Council!


  1. Having been to many NWBC meetings, I can honestly say there's not a majority of business people in the crowd. I mean people who own real businesses that employ people. There's a few, sure. But the bulk seem to be socially conservative retirees, bluehairs who have their Golden Parachute scheme.

    There's not a Millennial, there's not a GenY in the bunch. There is, in short, no future there.

    Pretty sad when you consider their arrogance and hostility.

  2. As follow up, I think you as a planning commissioner know from Ground Zero about the vast difference between those who actually eke a living from rural lands--ie, real living farmers--and those involved in resource extraction and conversion.

    It is a vast gulf in what these groups desire and need to gather a living from rural lands, and _terribly_ sad when the latter circle their greasy arms around the former and pretend to speak for and about them.

  3. As economist and author Herman Daly wrote:

    "The real economic base of a community is not exports, but rather consists of all those things that make it an attractive place to live, work, or to do business. That means the economic base includes the quality of the natural environment, the richness of the local culture, the security and stability of the community, the quality of the public services and the public works infrastructure, and the quality of the workforce. None of these things are provided by the commercial economy or produced for export."

    Good development supports the 'real' economic base of a community, preserves the natural environment and culture, and promotes community security & stability, quality public services, and a quality workforce. Bad development either ignores these assets or erodes their value.

    In case you're struggling to choose between Mr. Daly's vision and Mr. Crawford's, here's a little background about Mr. Daly:

    Professor at the University of MD School of Public Policy;
    Former Senior Economics at the World Bank;
    Author of: 'Steady State Economics', 'For the Common Good', and 'Beyond Growth' (among others)
    Recipient of:
    Right Livlihood Award;
    Heineken Prize from the Royal Netherlands Acadmey of Arts & Sciences;
    Sophie Prize (Norway);
    Leontief Prize from the Global Development & Environment Institute.

    Perhaps someone could share Mr. Crawford's resume with us...

  4. Correction (in CAPS):
    Former Senior ECONOMIST at the World Bank

  5. Actually, even using a criterion like "exports are good", the Growth Management Act's overriding goal of preserving farmland is good for exports. Whatcom County produces 1/3 billion $/ year of economic value purchased mainly by out-of-Whatcom purchasers. Thus agriculture in Whatcom County is a great wealth creator, and a sustainable one at that. Whatcom needs this!

    By contrast, the Crawford philosophy is "build-out the County, ASAP". Yes, he is right in the near term: in the 30 years during a flurry of activity to build-out the County, the returns to real-estate developers will exceed the returns to farmland. But, at the end, we will have changed from a County of 190,000 people with a so-so economic base, to a county of 400,000 people with much less economic base.

    The whole focus of public discussion on "development" is about modes of residential construction and retail development. But, this focus misses the larger point, which is, how will we create wealth, sustainably? The GMA's insistence on preserving farmland is a good step toward continuing to create wealth, sustainably. The Crawford approach, on the other hand, entirely ignores sustainable wealth creation, which is ironic, because he and his brethren would surely want to be known as wealth creators.

    The Crawford approach leads to 400,000 folks selling latte's to each other but no wealth creation.

    Abe Jacobson

  6. Abe,

    As always, thanks for your intelligent comment.

    I agree that exports are good, but I’d like to expand on Herman Daly’s comment as it was taken a little out of context. Mr. Daly was addressing the ‘economic base’ models that “treat production for export as the ‘base’ or driving force of economic development, and production for the local market as derivative and dependent on export production.” Mr. Daly was not asserting that exports are not ‘good’; but was emphasizing that production for local markets was also important on its own.

    As Mr. Daly explains, “The only reason to export is to be able to pay for imports. If imported goods and services can be produced locally then the reason for export disappears, and the variety of local activities increases as well.” This serves as the basis for relocalization efforts, which favor short supply lines and local self-reliance.

    In terms of Whatcom County – and related to your wise observation – Whatcom County must be careful not to destroy its ability to produce goods for local markets and for export. To put in simpler terms, we cannot sacrifice our agricultural industry to build more homes. Doing so is bad economic policy and bad development, any way you look at it.

  7. Here's a quick question for you--how many County Councilmembers, City Councilmembers and Planning Commissioners are real business people?

    Quick answer...Darn few.

    The same is true for the Northwest Business Clubbers. How many are actively involved in the production of true wealth?

    Real estate and financial services don't count. These vocations take wealth that has already been produced and spread it around.

    Every questioner at a Northwest Business Club forum should be required to state their occupation, the number of people in their workplace and their annual salary.

    These ground rules would quickly separate the true business people from the fourflushers.

    People join clubs for the same reason they used to carry them--Security. And clubs like the NBC, the BIA and the Bellingham-Whatcom Chamber provide convenient venues for non-corporate, non-manufacturing, nondescript nonentities to bloviate their silly notions about business in Whatcom County. And to fire cheap shots at invited guests.

    Sam Crawford has never created a job. He's a paper-pusher that works out of his house. He could never make it in his native LA with his limited skill-set, but in Whatcom County he's a rock star. The classic big fish in a small pond. And he's popular because his cronies are at the same limited level of professional attainment. They are all part of the Club.

    Not to say that Sam is not a bright guy--he has managed to win three elections and establish himself as a power player in Whatcom County politics. And that success has a positive impact on his business. Emerald Lake Consulting can more easily justify higher fees if the principal has served ten years on County Council and is the current Chair. After all, Land Use is what County Council is all about.

    Had Crawford lost to Ken Mann in the last election, his business--and Land Use Consultant cred--would have been negatively impacted.

    But for now, Sam's flyin' high....

    John Lesow

  8. "People join clubs for the same reason they used to carry them..."

    Well stated, Mr. Lesow ;-)