Thursday, February 08, 2007

Manteca approves development scheme

Left: Developers, lawyers and EDAW people seem happy their project has been approved.

If you ever need a lesson in why housing costs so much, look no further than the Environmental Impact Report prepared for this project.

The Oleander, Sundance, Sundance 2 project is a plan to build houses and "develop" a 230 acre area just south of Manteca. The plan is to build 1,074 new houses, to set aside some land for "commercial development" and to construct various parks, including a promised new Boys' and Girls' Club. The experts estimate that about 3,341 people will live in the project, increasing Manteca's population by about 6.8 percent.

The Environmental Impact Report is required by a California law passed in the 1970s. The intention of the law is to, I guess, minimize damage or "impacts" to the environment. Or, lacking that, at least notify everyone about the "impacts."

By the way, did you notice that term, "impact?" Why is nothing ever just an "effect" or a "result," but rather, an "impact." To "impact" something is to hit it or strike it -- it conjures up the mental image of something slamming into an object, causing destruction. E.g. "The impact of the meteor ...." But I digress again.

The way the EIR is organized, it attempts to list or identify all the "environmental effects" (or impacts), then recommends or mandates mitigations or things that can be done to reduce these effects or make them less damaging to the environment.

I put the word in quotes there on purpose because, as you'd see if you ever read one of these reports, a lot of the effects of the project are anything but "environmental." Instead, most of the report talks about how they will need more of your tax money for the schools, the roads, the sewage treatment plant, a new water tank, etc. In addition, the EIR spends a lot of time on what I call "meddling." These are things that are someone's idea of what a housing project should look like, for example, the size of the garages on the houses, the requirement for gabled roofs, the requirement for walking trails and "neighborhood centers," etc, etc. etc. What do these things really have to do with "the environment?" Much of the EIR reads like a document from the Central Planning department of the old Soviet Union.

Now, you might get the idea I don't like the idea, or don't like "development." No, you won't hear any silly complaints from me. Things like "all these new people are moving in" and how Manteca isn't the small town we love, how we are losing the "character" of the town or something, how we are losing all this "great farmland," etc, and how terrible this is. I don't get into that. In fact, I'm all for the building of new houses. People need a place to live. The only way to create affordable housing is to build houses.

And that's where the problem is. The real purpose of this years-long process of study, preparation and publishing an EIR seems to just make it harder to build a house. And, perversely, prevents competition from other house builders. That makes whoever can get through the process and finally get permission to build and sell houses very happy. And leaves everyone else to either pay their price or not have a house. It's sort of a win/win so long as you don't count the people who would like to have a house.

Maybe some examples from the EIR itself will help show what I'm talking about:

1. The report says if they find any burrowing owls during construction, they have to stay 75 meters away from the nest until a "qualified biologist" determines that the fledglings can forage on their own. Whatever that's supposed to help, I don't know. But the fun part is that they permit the construction workers to blast the field with chemicals to poison the ground squirrels, the owl's favorite food! "To discourage the owls... by discouraging the presence of the ground squirrels..."

Maybe they skipped biology 101: When you poison the prey, you poison the predator. The field of perhaps 230 acres will be covered in dead or dying poisoned squirrels, the food for the owl we are trying to "protect." What kind of mitigation is this?

2. The area is a "likely," and I'll paraphrase a bit, Indian burial ground. As a fix or "mitigation," they are going to bring out a state-certified archaeologist and an American Indian medicine man who will perform some unspecified procedure. See pg 4.4-12 in the EIR if you think I'm making this up. I sure hope it works! Don't they watch those movies?

3. A drainage ditch a few feet long, dug on one of the farms, has been declared "a waterway of the United States" and they have to fence it off, bring in the Army Corps of Engineers, and apply for a bunch of permits before they fill it in. In the end, they are just going to fill it in anyway. So why bother with the fences and the Army?

4. This is my favorite -- They determined that State Road 120, which runs just north of the project, spews out something they call "toxic air contaminants" (TACs). There's nothing they can do about that, but it's the suggested fixes that get me.

First, they say to put the Boys' and Girls' Club 500 ft. from the roadway to lessen the exposure to "sensitive receptors," otherwise known as boys and girls.

Next, they suggest putting the high density housing (read: poor people) next to the highway, the area with the toxic air! That way the wealthy home buyers can enjoy the cleaner air. What a plan! Sure, they don't put it quite those words. The reason given talks about how this is because the poor have "greater turnover" and so because the poor people in the apartments won't stay there as long as the wealthy homeowners, their overall exposure to the toxins will be less. (EIR, pg 4.3-23). Along the same lines, they suggest a wall and planting a row of trees. To stop the toxins from the highway?

I wonder if they are going to be handing out a notice to the renters that says something like "the air here is highly toxic, but we don't expect you to stay here too long, so I'm sure you'll be fine."