Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Pullman NIMBY Manifesto

WSU Professor Kathryn Meier's Town Crier column in today's Moscow-Pullman Daily News is a Pullman NIMBY Manifesto for the ages.
The Palouse is an incredibly beautiful place. While traveling elsewhere, I have pointed to the ubiquitous Microsoft screensaver with the rolling green hills and said with pride, "That is where I live."

I fear that we may be taking this natural beauty for granted. In the course of discussions about public policy in Whitman County, I cannot recall seeing anything that specifically addresses issues concerning landscape, terrain and green space.

A couple of ongoing construction projects serve to illustrate the point. On Military Hill in Pullman, a development called "Meadow Creek" is being built opposite the high school. The name itself is ironic. In order to create access to the new housing development, a charming little valley has been partially filled in with massive amounts of soil to generate a roadway. The fill has obliterated a large section of the meadow, along with part of the creek (which now flows through a culvert). This is a rather major reworking of the local landscape, but I do not recall seeing any discussion of public hearings in the local press. It is possible the finished project will be gentle on the eye, and it will certainly provide much-needed housing, but I find the apparent lack of discussion about the larger issue disturbing.

Another interesting development is the small retail mall nearing completion along Bishop Boulevard. The building is attractive enough, and the retail space should be a great addition to Pullman. Again, what concerns me is a lack of debate about the location and design of the project. The new building sits along the bank of the river. Trees that had once been planted for public beautification were torn out along the riverfront, although some trees remain. The windowless back of the building faces the river. Aside from flood concerns, which certainly must have been addressed, the building seems to make poor use of a potentially scenic site in order to maximize frontage along Bishop Boulevard. I would have expected such a project to be scrutinized in a public hearing.

I have been saddened to read some recent letters to the Daily News stating landowners should be able to do whatever they want with their property, without any public oversight. Such an attitude seems to fly in the face of the concept of "civilization."

Some cities, such as Houston, have been notorious for laxity of building or zoning codes. This can result in an unfortunate hodgepodge in which liquor stores are situated next to day-care centers (as an example). In a city with geographical features as varied as ours, lack of public oversight can potentially result in significant remodeling of the landscape, or in buildings that disrupt their surroundings. While such developments may temporarily increase tax revenue, it is not in the long-term interest of a community to lose the very features that make it unique.

Since I am not serving as an investigative reporter, I have not scrutinized the local and state regulations that apply to the examples cited above. I can only comment that the level of public input in Pullman is much lower than what I have seen elsewhere. The idea that there can be only one public hearing on land-use issues is foreign to me. In our previous community (on the East Coast), such issues were subject to three hearings before the zoning and land-use board. The first hearing served to get people involved, as the local newspaper would report on the discussion that occurred. For a high-impact issue, more residents would then attend the subsequent meetings, bringing more data to support their viewpoints. Numerous residents were able to speak out at the meetings, and their opinions definitely made a difference. Participants in the meetings were able to hear both sides of the issue, and to see firsthand how consensus and compromise were reached by their officials. In Whitman County, petitions and letters to the editor appear to be a major means of public input, but I do not find them as effective as live public debate. If current policy actually prohibits more than one public hearing on issues that significantly affect our future, then perhaps it is time to change the policy.
I, for one don't live in a "screensaver." In the real world, as opposed to Ms. Meier's academic world, we live in a living, breathing, working community that has needs like affordable family housing, adequate retail, and a thriving tax base to keep the schools open, the fire and police departments staffed, the streets paved, and the water flowing. Wealthy professors like Meier and Jim Krueger move here from somewhere back East and expect Pullman to be like DisneyWorld I guess, beautiful scenery with no visible support or infrastructure so as not to disturb their little corner of paradise.


I can tell you that I drive (and walk) past the proposed Meadow Creek subdivison every day and it was not a "charming valley." It was just a weed-covered depression between two hills as you see in hundreds of thousands of other places on the Palouse. Give me a break.

So Ms. Meier wants her personal aesthetic tastes to trump private property rights, affordable family housing, adequate retail, and a thriving tax base? Washington's regulations are already perfect for Ms. Meier and the NIMBYers. All it takes is a few people to get a burr under their saddle and a developer's project is either cancelled or held up for years. Pullman like Houston? Please. If only we could be as prosperous as a city like Houston, but we never will because of selfish snobs like Meier and the outrageous environmental laws in Washington.

I am going to wrap up by quoting from a Mesquite [NM] Local News editorial I used a while back. It utterly destroys Ms. Meier's arguments and those of her ilk:
It’s ironic that residents of this gated community have started a petition to stop development of a new housing project because of their claim that the construction will “destroy the beautiful mountain ridges, bluffs and natural desert areas adjacent to Copper Bluffs.”

The irony is that they are living in a neighborhood that was only made possible after the land where their houses are now sitting was similarly carved and shaped to accommodate the construction.

It’s become a common cry in Mesquite for people whose homes often sit atop regal perches that were once deemed beautiful landscape features to now rail against the same kind of desecration that might mar their views.

More importantly, it’s un-American to tell a legitimate land-owner that he cannot use his land as he sees fit because it might “mess up somebody’s view.”

As has been pointed out before, you can’t buy a view, even when you’ve paid a half a million dollars for your house.

The only way is to get together with other like-minded neighbors and purchase the land, then apply deed restrictions to keep it pristine and untouched.

But the truth is that most homeowners aren’t willing to “put up or shut up” and tie up their own money to protect their surroundings.

Instead, they insist that their governments use tax dollars paid by all of us to buy the land to preserve their high-dollar views.

Or coerce their government officials to use building permit restrictions and zoning filibusters to accomplish the same goals, shutting out new residents hoping to taste that which has drawn the current homeowners to this desert delight.


April E. Coggins said...

I guess Ms. Meier was too busy watching her screen saver to see the public notice sign that was on the property for several months, the required legal notices in the Daily News, the real estate listing and the news articles in the Daily News.
She also signed the anti-Wal-Mart petition, so I can surmise that she is against anything being built in Pullman. Except of course, her own house and maybe her place of employment.

Tom Forbes said...

Yes, prominently missing from Meier's "landscape altering" projects was the Palouse Ridge Golf Course. I guess she doesn't want to bite the hand that allows her to live in the screensaver.

Tom Forbes said...

Here's some required reading for Meier: "WHY THE PUBLIC PLUNDERING OF PRIVATE PROPERTY RIGHTS IS STILL A VERY BAD IDEA", from the Spring 2006 issue of the Real Property, Probate and Trust Journal of the American Bar Association. A quote:

"The material progress of Western democratic civilization has derived significantly from the enjoyment of private rights in property, especially real property. Historically, surplus resources generated from property have fueled technological, cultural, and other advances. However, in modern generations, many have become concerned that unrestrained exploitation of property for private gain may cause a permanent consumption, degradation, or destruction of precious resources that are essential for general prosperity both now and in the future. Other concerns relate to private property's role in creating vast material inequalities in human society, which some also deem especially dangerous and undesirable for the future...

This is not to say that the acquisition and exploitation of private rights in land should be entirely without restraint. Acquisition requires unending vigilance to ensure that those who become powerful through the accumulation of assets do not exploit weaker elements of society or abuse public resources. Today, however, the challenge seems not to be how to deal with private bullies, but how to contain the public bully. If that challenge is not successfully met, the result could be permanent, unfortunate, and unnecessary changes in our way of life."

pete3397 said...

Meier brings up the tired canard about Houston that was used in going against the property rights initiatives this past year (you'll end up with a pollution spewing factory right next door to your new home!). Unfortunately for her, most Houstonians like living without zoning. To borrow a quote from the Houston Business Journal, regarding the last time zoning was voted down, "Post-mortem analysis turned up an interesting phenomenon. A large number of voters with moderate incomes and diverse ethnic backgrounds had the quaint notion that property owners are more capable of controlling their real estate destinies than a panel of bureaucrats with the proper political connections." Perhaps Houstonians like the fact that they can buy a 4 bedroom,2 FULL baths, enclosed 2-car garage, 2000 sqft. home in a good neighborhood for $150,000 instead of paying $250,000+ like you can in good old only-moderately-zoned Whitman County. Meier's prescription of greater public input on zoning would result in an increase in the artificial/regulatory shortage of single family housing in the Pullman area and increase housing costs. Not only is she a NIMBYer she's effectively a drawbridger.

Ray Lindquist said...

Peter, You are so RIGHT, but you forgot most homes at that price (in Houston) also have a full size swimming pool in the backyard also. The less zoneing laws the less the property costs.

Satanic Mechanic said...

You are very correct, Meadow Creek is not a valley, it is a drainage field. I lived in the Paradise Ridge development or SELville, for five years and I know that area well. It was filled with garbage and cigarette butts from some of the students from PHS.
Kudos to the people who are developing that area. Pullman needs more homes to meet the needs of the growing population.