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Poor Economy Strains Usually Civil Discourse

Feb 1, 2010

UCLA Extension's annual Land Use Law and Planning Conference is typically a demilitarized zone. Combative environmentalists and builders usually check their weapons at the door, and a civil discussion about legislation, litigation, and regulation ensues. Not so last Friday during the 24th annual event at the Biltmore in downtown Los Angeles.

Blame the economy, but something close to open warfare erupted over stormwater runoff between Mark Gold, president of the Heal the Bay, and Andrew Henderson, general counsel of the Building Industry Association of Southern California. On top of that, the keynote speaker Ed Blakely, former dean of the planning school at the University of Southern California and recovery czar in New Orleans warned that there may not be enough market to sop up the growth that we are planning.

The stormwater panel was billed as an educational session on understanding the alphabet-soup regulation of low-impact development, which is now mandated under new stormwater rules in both Orange County and the Los Angeles/Ventura County area. Adam Fischer of the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board made some progress in the explanation. He noted that under the Orange County permit, the regional board now has more authority to go after developers, whereas the agency's only previous recourse was to go after cities.

But when Gold and Henderson began to mix it up, explanations were left in the dust. The two quickly began to square off over the nature of stormwater regulations and, in particular, whether numerical limits on runoff pollution should be implemented.

"Does anybody think we are doing a good job on stormwater runoff?" Gold asked at the beginning of his presentation. "Did anyone see the beaches after the storms last week? They pretty much looked like a trash dump." He did acknowledge that water quality is handled well during the dry season, when runoff systems (natural and man-made) can handle the load, but not during heavy rains.

Henderson responded by attempting to counter with common sense: "My suspicion is Native Americans thousands of years ago probably wouldn't go swimming in the ocean right after the rain because there'd be a lot of pollution."

Henderson and Gold then got into a rhetorical battle over standards for trash, which wasn't all that hard to follow but did stray somewhat from the goal of informing the audience.

Blakely, who is now based at the University of Sydney, in Australia, painted a somewhat bleak picture of the future of Western countries if their economies are based on the notion of growth among large middle-class families. "When I lived in Pasadena," he said, "I had a six-bedroom house. Thank God I sold that. Who is going to buy our homes? My children aren't. They're married or in long-term relationships, but they are not planning on four or five kids. In fact, they haven't yet produced one!" Blakely noted that New Orleans, five years after Hurricane Katrina, still has 40,000 abandoned homes.

As a solution, Blakely strayed from traditional planning topics. He argued for better education of immigrant families so they are more upwardly mobile, and for more savings and investment so that economic growth would not rely so much on population growth.

Bill Fulton