From False Dichotomies to the Spectrum of Reality

From False Dichotomies to the Spectrum of Reality

One of the issues occurring as people new to the fast growth and urbanization issue in Marin try to get their heads around the issues are the false dichotomies that are appearing. Daily I see these dichotomies used by fast growth proponents in letters to the Marin IJ editor and on websites. I even hear at least one Marin County supervisor suggesting that if we don’t allow more housing in Eastern Marin then rural Western Marin must be given up to development.

RationalWiki describes a false dichotomy as follows:

false dilemma, or false dichotomy, is a logical fallacy which involves presenting two opposing views, options or outcomes in such a way that they seem to be the only possibilities: that is, if one is true, the other must be false, or, more typically, if you do not accept one then the other must be accepted. The reality in most cases is that there are many in-between or other alternative options, not just two mutually exclusive ones.

I thought it useful to look at each aspect the impacts of rapidly developing and urbanizing Marin in the appropriate way – on a spectrum, understanding the current situation. And most importantly basing this on facts.

property_taxMarin Already Has the Highest Taxes in the State

Urbanization and housing advocates are lobbying to significantly increase the stock of affordable housing in Marin. Affordable housing is an alternative way of  saying subsidized housing, exclusively playing up one specific aspect.

What’s the impact of affordable housing on taxes?

An entire non-profit developed apartment block can pay the same property tax contribution towards schools as just one modest single family home. So adding many affordable housing units will place an increasing upwards pressure on local taxes to support this. But perhaps Marin could and should raise its taxes to address this concern?

Where does Marin lie on the tax burden spectrum?

bad-spectrumOn May 12th the Marin IJ reported that Marin single family home owners pay the highest property tax of any county in California. Marin County Assessor Richard Benson counters that using a better methodology Marinites pay  1.28% of the value of their houses annually to property tax. By Benson’s measure this makes Marin us the third most expensive county and not the first. Whether first or third, there are 58 counties in California – so Marin is by far at the most expensive end of the spectrum.

You might say that this is because houses in Marin are expensive – but such a conclusion is inaccurate as the above calculations already factor in the value of the home and the ranking is based on the percentage tax rate (not the absolute amount of dollars).

Ultimately increasing taxes the stock of affordable housing puts upward pressure on taxes that makes Marin less affordable for those who live here already.

Marin is the Healthiest County in the State for the 5th Year Running

The transit-oriented development policy being pursued by urbanization advocates, and formalized in the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s Transit Oriented Development Policy, is to concentrate new housing – ideally using high density – along transportation corridors.

MTC’s Transit Oriented Development Policy, enacted in 2005, is summarized as follows in this ABAG document:

MTC’s Transit Oriented Development Policy, adopted in July 2005, aims to capitalize on investments in new transit corridors in the region by promoting the development of  vibrant, mixed-use neighborhoods around new stations.The policy has three key elements:

1) Corridor-level thresholds to quantify appropriate minimum levels of development
around transit stations along new corridors

2) Local station area plans that address future land-use changes, station access needs,
circulation improvements, pedestrian-friendly design, TOD-supportive parking
policies and other key features in a transit-oriented development

3) Corridor working groups that bring together CMAs, city and county planning staff,
transit agencies, and other key stakeholders

The problem here is that this policy drives new development to be adjacent to stations. Here in Marin, SMART train stations are served by a diesel train that emits harmful particulates, and stations are near immediately adjacent to a freeway.

The challenges this presents are significant – and the body of evidence from leading organizations to suggest that this is not wise is formidable.

The Evidence Against Housing Near Transit Corridors

A simple Google of this topic will reveal dozens, if not hundreds of reports. Here is a selection. A 2005 World Health Organization publication states:

There is evidence that implicates ambient air pollution in adverse effects on pregnancy, birth outcomes and male fertility. Modelled studies on exposure to traffic-related air pollutants suggest that they are a risk factor for adverse birth outcomes.

A 2012 study by Dockery of Harvard School of Public Health conducted a study analyzing air pollution and impact on health – a situation exacerbated by MTCs policy of focusing new development around train stations located next to busy freeways:

The prospective follow-up of the sample of adults in the Harvard Six Cities study provided an opportunity to examine survival associated with city-specific mean air pollution concentrations adjusting for individual risk factors. While the sample was small (8411 individuals) and the follow-up period was short (11 to 14 years), there were surprisingly strong and highly statistically significant associations between reduced survival and community average fine particle (PM2.5) concentrations. After adjusting for individual risk factors, life expectancy was estimated to be reduced by approximately two years in the dirtiest city compared to the cleanest, although a linear relationship was seen across all six cities. To put this in context, eradicating all cancer in the United States had been estimated to increase average life expectancy by two years. If true, community air pollution in the United States, in cities which met the current EPA ambient air quality standard to protect the public health, had substantial effects on life expectancy.

good-spectrumBut what is the current situation for Marin? It turns out we are the healthiest county in all of California with the Marin IJ reporting on March 26th:

For the fifth year in a row, Marin County has been ranked as the healthiest county in California by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

It would seem as if Marin is a model to follow, it fits the test of “if it ain’t broken don’t fix it”. If Marin continues to pursue MTCs current Transit Oriented Development approach then the housing for new residents will be significantly less healthy. New residents of affordable housing will be placed in the worst locations, destined to suffer adverse health impact.

Marin’s Water Situation: “Extreme Drought”

Availability of water is not uniform across the entire US, or even California. This official map from March 2014 from the US drought monitor identifies Marin as having an “extreme drought”. 

Drought Risk, Mar 2014

If one was planning to absorb an increasing population, it would seem prudent to understand the capacity for an area to provide water. Large swathes of the United States are not suffering from drought conditions.

Urbanization advocates pushing for more housing in locations suffering from elevated, or in the case of Marin, extreme drought risk are likely to cause the following consequences:

1) Increased occurrence and severity of droughts. 
I am sure that readers who suffered through prior Marin droughts can recount how unpleasant these situations were, and how they should not be repeated.

2) Building of Desalination Plants
Desalination plants require very high amounts of energy to push seawater through filters that extract salt. This energy requires electricity generation – which in turn generates greenhouse gas emissions. A 2012 study of desalination in the Arabian gulf, an area with a heavy reliance on desalination plants, states:

the water production sector is the second largest emitter of CO2  and contributor to climate change after the oil sector in GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries

Adelaide Desalination Plant

Click for larger image

Additionally desalination plants are sizable facilities required to be located on the coastline. A coastline that most of us in Marin want to protect from such development. The photo shows the scale of a desalination plant in Adelaide, Australia. So if we pursue this route not only will we increase greenhouse gas emissions, we will see  such monstrosities appear along Marin and Sonoma’s sensitive shoreline.

What Are the Solutions?

Building until Marin becomes even close to affordable is not an option. 82% of Marin is off-limits to new development, and much of the areas that remain are built out.

The author acknowledges that “no growth” is not an option. But we can grow in moderation with a reasoned approach that balances out the impact on Marin:

- we can continue to slowly add more housing

- we should ensure new affordable housing is truly integrated, adhering to Marin’s excellent policy that 20% of new housing should be affordable, and avoiding concentrating low income residents to specific areas

- we should place new housing away from pollution sources that cause adverse health

- we should be incredibly sensitive to the impact on the environment, taxes, traffic and health of building new development; especially development that is highly concentrated into small footprints (e.g. high density housing).

There are ways that Marin can grow, but it’s vital for the sake of all living in Marin, whether human, animal or plant, that we plan this growth responsibly.