Sunday, May 4, 2014

Sprawl and taxpayer environmentalism

January's issue of Environmental History had an article by Andrew Wiese, "'The Giddy Rise of the Environmentalists': Corporate Real Estate Development and Environmental Politics in San Diego, California, 1968–73". The abstract:

Dr. Seuss, drawing for cover of San Diego Magazine,
December 1972 (Legendary Auctions)
Changes in US real estate development during the 1960s and early 1970s were a catalyst for popular environmentalism. New flows of capital between builders and investors, including direct investment by Fortune 500 companies and the growth of the first nationwide home-building firms, produced a historic peak in US construction between 1969 and 1973. A case study of San Diego, California, indicates that these changes played a key role in the era's burst of environmental reform. It also reveals an entangled history of environmental and taxpayer politics rooted in the spatial and financial changes of accelerated real estate development. In San Diego, the corporate real estate boom brought together environmental concerns with taxpayer anxieties to produce a right-leaning environmental backlash that would have long influence in the city.
Under the heading "A Taxpayer Environmentalism" Wiese explains further:
In addition to stirring environmental concerns, accelerated real estate development provoked fiscal anxieties that struck home in the local political culture. In a city that voted for Nixon, Goldwater, Nixon, and Nixon in successive elections, aversion to taxes was a staple of politics. Postwar development reinforced this proclivity by combining growth with a bucolic environment and low taxes. Indeed, San Diego's local tax rate was the lowest of any big city in the state. By the early 1970s, however, the pace and scale of growth jeopardized these expectations. Real estate development required new schools, sewers, highways, police and fire stations, parks, libraries, and other services that added to the cost of government and pushed taxes up. The housing boom also inflated home values, which produced worrisome property tax increases across the city. Unlike many environmental concerns, then, sprawl not only damaged the environment but it made citizens pay for the injury as taxpayers. As taxes rose with population, many San Diegans questioned the booster logic that growth paid for itself. Instead, by the early 1970s, they drew the opposite conclusion, as John Rose put it, that “urban sprawl creates higher taxes!”
The convergence between environmental and fiscal concerns in San Diego is not as surprising as it might appear. As Robert Self illustrates, taxpaying emerged as a critical political identity in postwar California. Like the environmental consciousness that [Adam] Rome traces, it was an identity rooted in the privileges of postwar suburbanization (including suburban cities like San Diego). Taxpaying was a political identity that trended right, but, as Self shows, it could be mobilized to various political ends. Even Oakland's Black Panther Party campaigned on the issue of tax fairness in the early 1970s. More to the point, leading open space advocates in California challenged urban sprawl as a drain on taxes, a line of reasoning that San Diego environmentalists adapted locally. As development outran the city's capacity to pay for services, thousands of San Diegans melded fiscal concerns to an environmental agenda that would expand government regulation, restrict private property, and potentially increase taxes to preserve open space. This was a very different kind of taxpayer agenda than the anti-statism associated with California's tax rebellion later in the decade, and it was a combination in which environmental concerns took a leading part, at least for a time.

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