02/13/2008: "Part Three: Sustainable"
Sustainable Growth must include pragmatic planning for economic growth without destroying the ecological balance of our Islands.
We suffer today from planning that has caused some fundamental problems with regard to sustainable growth. We need to be willing to solve some problems by simply stopping what we have been doing to create them instead of coming up with new programs that ignore the fundamental issues. We should reexamine the underlying policies in the existing Comprehensive Plan that have been proven to fail.
To address the first point, it is a fact that we have an economy lacking in steady year-round employment at good wages. If we do nothing to encourage economic opportunities and continue to raise our cost of living we make this County unsustainable and unaffordable for most working families. In fact, we may destroy the very social diversity we all cherish.
The solution to social diversity is not for government to build “affordable housing”. Government subsidized housing should be part of a much broader plan to diversify our economy. We have inadequate living wage jobs in the private sector. Until we change the failed planning policies that created this problem it makes no sense to talk about building subsidized housing. Inviting workers into an economic environment that is failing to provide high-quality jobs creates the “plantation effect” where we actually subsidize employers that need workers but can’t pay them adequately and lay them off in the winter. In order to have a sustainable economy we need policies that encourage business and attract investment.
Our past planning efforts have discouraged economic development by failing to provide adequate Rural General Use areas for business development and added too many restrictions on commercial enterprises in activity centers. We maintain policies that discourage commercial use of the shoreline and limit population density in designated urban areas. Instead of planning for future growth and prosperity in these areas we are planning for failure. Limiting business activity by strict zoning and burdensome regulation has discouraged investment and created an atmosphere of litigation for those who dare try locate here for the purpose of doing any kind of business.
Because we are a community of islands, future business development would have been naturally shoreline based. What did we do to plan for this likelihood? Instead of adopting policies that encouraged commercial use while protecting the ecological balance of our near-shore areas we limited new construction or made it nearly impossible to develop. If residential or commercial property existed historically on the shoreline we wrote policies that required it to stay the same and if it fell into disrepair we said it should not be rebuilt.
Today permits to maintain or build shoreline structures are extremely hard to obtain, expensive, and too much of a risk for most entrepreneurs. We have essentially denied commercial access to the shoreline by regulations that restrict most commercial and recreational activity; prohibit docks, ramps, bulkheads, stairs, and marinas. We have harassed existing businesses on or over the water and discouraged all but a very few aquaculture activities.
Do we want to be a strictly residential community like Nantucket, Aspen, Martha’s Vineyard, or Jackson Hole, or do we want to encourage investment and job creation? What kinds of opportunities really exist for businesses that are not already restricted? The answers to these questions make a huge difference in any discussion about sustainable growth. If we further restrict business opportunities or simply do nothing it is inevitable that we will end up like the above communities.
Ideas for a sustainable economy may include such things as promoting agriculture, subsidizing farmers markets, encouraging local food production and consumption, paving the way for non-polluting vehicles, encouraging green building, renewable energy production, composting, recycling, etc. These are all good ideas but our economy needs to be reality based. Have any of these activities proven to actually support sustainable economic growth without government subsidy?
Government involvement in business usually means tax it, regulate it, subsidize it, or hire government workers to do it. This should be resolutely resisted. The County is already the biggest employer in this Island economy. This has proven to be unsustainable.
The best idea should be to adopt policies that encourage entrepreneurs to invest in these sustainable ideas with their own capital, pass legislation that makes their vision possible, then get out of their way. Government must resist the temptation to get mixed up in business. That is the real challenge.