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Saturday, January 19 , 2019, 11:39 am | Fair 65º


Randy Alcorn: Will We Allow Santa Barbara to be Growing, Growing, Gone?

Nearly 20 years ago, the late Michael Towbes and I had a spirited written debate in the Santa Barbara News-Press over development and population growth in Santa Barbara. Back then, in the 1990s, the News-Press had nearly 50,000 subscribers and was widely read by local residents.

Towbes, maybe Santa Barbara’s preeminent developer, was not going to leave unchallenged my criticism of development and my contention that it would eventually erode the singular ambience that makes Santa Barbara one of the best places on earth.

In the past, Santa Barbara city councils, with the broad support of residents, had sought to limit population growth, even setting a population cap that city planners should endeavor to enforce — one way or another.

Anyone wanting to as much as nail two sticks together would have to trudge through a knee-deep sludge of city bureaucracy. Approval and permits were never a certainty, and the process was often a long, arduous — and frustrating — ordeal.

For anyone who made a living developing property, doing so in Santa Barbara was exceptionally challenging. Towbes accepted that reality and found ways to meet the challenge. He did so with an even-tempered grace that appreciably allayed alienation and animus from the community’s environmental and anti-growth interests.

Charm and compromise can be more persuasive than castigation and threats.

Towbes wrote an articulate response to my attack on development. It included the putative contention that unless a community grew — i.e. increased its population — it would lose economic vitality.

That canard was easily debunked by simply examining economic activity. Most of it is recurring. A stable population of any number requires the same products and services over and over again — groceries, tires, roofs, entertainment, haircuts, health care, etc.

While an increasing population provides a larger market to sell into, and so increases the profits of those who provide goods and services, a stable population doesn’t doom an economy, it sustains it. Those who clamor for increasing population simply want to make more money by selling more stuff.

The next argument against my anti-growth position was an appeal to freedom of movement, and the accusation of NIMBYism and selfish exclusivity. People should not be barred from living in Santa Barbara because those who were lucky enough to get here ahead of them want to build a bureaucratic wall to keep others out.

But then, some places are so exceptional and precious that they should not be overrun. National parks can have visitor limits, so can museums.

There is a concept of stewardship that seeks to maintain what is exceptionally desirable. Pearl Chase understood this concept, as have many Santa Barbara residents who have followed in her footsteps.

There is also the concept of carrying capacity that recognizes that there are limits that if exceeded destroy that which needs to be preserved.

The pen may be mightier than the sword, but not always mightier than the dollar.

Over the years, I never stopped railing against increasing housing in Santa Barbara, and Towbes never stopped building housing on the Central Coast.

Towbes’ irrefutable defense of developers was that they were not responsible for all the babies being born. In this, he was correct, and if a place as singular as Santa Barbara had to endure more development, it couldn’t do any better than having Towbes as the man doing it. He loved this community and benefited it by sharing millions of dollars of his profits and a considerable amount of his time with it.

By accommodating the demand for housing and commercial development concomitant with increased population, it can be argued that Towbes facilitated the diminishment of Santa Barbara’s small-town charm and its singularly appealing ambience.

But, that would have happened anyway given the pressures of state-imposed housing mandates and local governments’ need for increasing the tax base to cover self-inflicted pension liabilities.

A more cogent argument is that this community is diminished by not having Towbes in it. Any fair-minded person couldn’t help but find him to be a genuinely good guy. In spite of our philosophical differences, he always greeted me cordially, respectfully and on a first-name basis. It was impossible not to like this man.

Santa Barbara has been fortunate to have folks like him. He will be missed.

Meanwhile, I will continue to rail against population growth and those forces that encourage it — windmills notwithstanding.

In spite of a historically harrowing drought, the City of Santa Barbara continues to approve more housing. Currently, there are more than 1,200 units waiting approval to add to the hundreds and hundreds that have already been shoe-horned into every nook and cranny of the city.

Compounding the people-packing, are the short-sighted, irresponsible politicians in Sacramento who have passed legislation forcing communities to allow up to 1,200 square feet of separate residential space on properties with existing single residences. That destructive stupidity could nearly double population densities throughout California.

Santa Barbara and other California cities would become congested warrens with all the charm of Brazilian favelas — with more stress on already inadequate and deteriorated infrastructure and more straws sucking water from a depleted glass.

Call it NIMBYism all you like, but that is not what I want to have happen to my community. If you don’t either, contact your legislators and let them know.

— Randy Alcorn is a Santa Barbara political observer. Contact him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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