Category Archives: environment

Stuff

Never build (or buy) something if you’re not going to maintain it.

Don’t build (or buy) something that cannot be maintained.

This, of course, does not apply to consumables. It’s impossible to maintain a cake for long.

Here’s the hard part: Are you sure that what you’re about to build (or buy) can be maintained?

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On Environmental Regulation

A couple of weeks ago, in an interview with NPR , Kentucky Senator Rand Paul was talking about fines that a Wyoming rancher had to pay because he didn’t get a federal permit to build a pond, though he did have “local” permission to do so.

The Senator made this statement, “You should not have to get a federal permit to build a cattle pond. This is the kind of thing that has kind of run amok in our country is the federal government trying to regulate individual local issues like land use.”

And it’s been bothering me ever since. You see, about 25 years ago, I worked as a Virginia Water Protection Permit writer for the Commonwealth of Virginia. This means that I wrote state permits for construction projects that could impact the waters of Virginia – including permits for farm ponds.

Basically, Virginia certifies to the federal government that proposed activities will not have an impact on water quality provided certain conditions apply. It looks like a state permit, but the state is required to issues those permits according to Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.

One project in particular comes to mind. A landowner in the far western part of the state wanted to build a small, decorative pond on his property. The application stated that the stream he wanted to dam originated from a spring on his property, and that the spring had a watershed of less than 5 acres.

By the time the application got to my desk, several other regulators had already signed off on it – if the application had been correct, the pond would not have needed an individual permit. It would have been covered under waivers or general permits. But the application wasn’t correct.

When I looked at a topographic map of the stream to be impounded, I saw that it was one of those that goes underground for a while then re-surfaces – so it looked to the landowner like the water was coming from a spring, but it was not. The watershed feeding the stream was over 10 square miles – so it was a significant, perennial stream. Not only that, but it was a designated trout stream, and downstream of the proposed pond was a private trout fish farm.

The proposed pond would ruin the stream’s water quality for trout. Ultimately, the project was denied the permit. I met with the landowner and explained to him the reasons for the denial. He was disappointed, but understood.

He had his local permits – which in Virginia meant that they were zoning and construction permits – but without the federal and state environmental requirements, the water of that stream would not have been protected. Damage would have been permanent – both to the Commonwealth’s fishery and to the private business that depended on the stream’s quality.

This is why environmental regulation is needed – localities do not have the mandate or expertise to protect natural resources. Localities work on a scale that is too small to see broader impacts. To protect water quality, even cow ponds need to be reviewed by a higher authority.

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On sprawl

A few days ago, a Facebook friend shared this editorial by a Michigan businessman who postulates that the major challenge faced by his growing business is not taxes or regulation, but lack of talent. Talent, he says is being driven away from Michigan by “soul-crushing sprawl.” Sprawl which, he says, has made an undesirable “quality of place,” repellent to those with education and money, leaving Michigan “A place without youth, prospects, respect, money or influence.”

In response to that post, a couple of folks commented that people must like sprawl or there wouldn’t be so much of it: “If people hate sprawl so much, then how do hellish wastelands … get created?” I disagree. I don’t think people really like sprawl – I just think that they haven’t given much thought to any other way of life.

Sprawl has always been around. Once upon a time, yea, even before the whole concept of time was really nailed down, people were hunting, gathering nomads. They picked and hunted an area clear of consumables, then packed up and moved on before they had to deal with traffic control, waste disposal, or derelict industrial tracts. I imagine that the pattern of human expansion has always looked a lot like ringworm: a spreading, central patch of degraded land surrounded by actively growing colonies.

I believe that in the United States, our sprawl is fueled by habit, ingrained cultural values, and one hell of a marketing machine. A great many of us have bought into (been brainwashed into?) the idea of “the American Dream:” owning a single-family home with a yard and two-car garage.  This dream is constantly reinforced by our political leaders and every sort of media outlet there is (HGTV, anyone?).  Unfortunately, land for such a dream is expensive to come by in city centers, so people go out in ever-expanding circles in order to find an affordable bit of dream.

But the Dream is killing us. Ask most homeowners if they enjoy home and lawn maintenance, and the answer is “no.” Do they enjoy their commute to work? No. Do they spend more time commuting than they do with their families, hobbies, or puppy dogs? Yes. Sprawl contributes to obesity, stress disorders, asthma, and premature deaths due to car accidents. Yes, people like the idea of their houses and lawns, but I really don’t think they consider all the baggage that comes along with them. And our society doesn’t want them to.

Modern urban planning in most of the U.S. is  extremely responsive to the industry that builds these expanding rings – in fact, I’d say our political leaders are more responsive to the needs, wants, and desires of businesses than it is to human needs, wants, and desires. Including and especially local leaders. Many business leaders are motivated to run for local office in order to protect their industry and continue to encourage the uncontrolled growth that is sprawl. At a higher level, there are many industries that depend on the sprawl model of expansion – not only building developers but road builders, car manufacturers, utility companies – on and on – the amount of money and political influence involved is breathtaking.

The American Dream is built on The American Dream – and to point out that the American Dream is killing us is anathema to a lot of people, not only those who make their living in jobs fueled by the American Dream. A HUGE percentage of our national economy is dependent on it – the mortgage break-down and subsequent financial crisis is ample proof of that.  The marketing of the Dream has been so successful that it is impossible for many to see that the Dream may actually make them miserable.

But just because something has always been is no reason that it should continue to be so. Our species prides itself in being able to learn from the mistakes and innovations of others.  Many cities on this planet have problems associated with urban sprawl. Some have managed to get some control over it.

There are cities that have managed to come up with ways that re-imagine and renovate their city centers so that their boundaries don’t so much resemble someone with a nasty skin condition. These cities have livable neighborhoods where the basics of life (food markets, schools) are available within an easy walking distance, and where there is public transit to the more intensive commercial and industrial areas.

And – these tend to be cities that attract the educated, affluent people with options: San Francisco, New York, Washington (D.C.), Portland, Seattle. A few whole countries have managed to control the fungal-like growth: Switzerland, Germany, Sweden. Controlling sprawl is not impossible. It is not something we have to roll over and accept because “people must like it.” We can do better.

I’d like to think that everyone could live in a vibrant, livable community. That cars could be optional. That we’d have more choices when it comes to lifestyle than we seem to have now. Maybe I’m crazy – but this is my place for that.

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