Always Advocating Alan – It’s Fire Season and We are Living with Past Decisions and Unintended Consequences
From the moment when each of us performed a head-first dive into a life of our own, and then shortly thereafter decided to show our discomfort with our new world by crying when the doctor slapped us on the rear, we have needed to make decisions to support our continued existence. In our early years, it was pretty simple. All we had to do was let out the signal we were hungry or dirty, and miraculously our problem was solved for us. The results and consequences of our actions were therefore always positive, but unfortunately for us all, it would not remain that way for long.
Next came a period of experimentation. In some cases, we might have discovered the negative consequences of our actions by ourselves. We touched something hot and it hurt, giving us the first realization of situations where something negative might occur if we did not understand the environment before acting. But there was also the time when we thought our actions were proper and even fun, yet Mom or Dad held a distinctly different view. You may have thought, If someone took all that time to put those pages in a book, why wouldn’t it be OK to rip them all out again? This led to behavior that might also have left us crying, though this time it was Mom or Dad who slapped us on the rear. There went our first experience with unintended consequences.
As we grew older, we learned to make decisions within societal boundaries. Obviously, if we had not, we would have gotten metaphorically slapped again, but not by Mom and Dad. Plus, as we traveled through life, possibly getting married and raising children of our own, probably starting a career that necessitated accounting for the wellbeing of our employees or co-workers, our decisions and their consequences became even more relevant. We also came to understand that sometimes our decisions had negative consequences that could not be avoided. We realized there would be many occasions when we would have to take a risk, hoping that such events would not occur. We had to balance the positive and negative aspects of our action plans to determine if the inherent risk was necessary. Then, every so often, we would get bit by an unintended consequence we had not considered.
So, I ask you to look inward and answer this question- but please, do it quietly by yourself. Did you ever want to do something so desperately that you ignored substantial risks and went ahead with reckless abandon? I know I did, and fortunately for me, the risks never materialized in a way that surprised me. I raced motorcycles for 17 years. Did I know there was a substantial risk of personal injury? Of course I did. Was I ever injured? Oh yeah, I was. Fortunately, it was never permanently debilitating, and it did not endanger anyone else.
This leads me to my assertion: the wider the net of your responsibility is, the more careful you need to be in determining your course of action. As the number of people impacted by a decision increases, so too should the diligence exercised in reviewing the benefits, analyzing all the risks and thinking over how to deal with the consequences. During my career, I needed to consider the potential effects on my family, my 100 employees and the company as a whole. That seems to pale in comparison to the responsibility of an elected official who has our entire city’s population of 220,000 residents to think about. But when things go wrong in Santa Clarita, I hear too often about unintended consequences, when I just cannot believe our leaders were unaware of the issues involved.
With fire season upon us, I think about open space and affordable housing in particular because these two areas have a direct effect on each other. If you were a resident of Santa Clarita in 2007, you may remember the sales pitch for establishing the Open Space Preservation District. Councilmember Laurene Weste championed the initiative for the purpose of forming a green belt around the city, providing a permanent wildlife habitat and slowing down urban sprawl. I thought a reasonably sized green belt was a good idea then, and it still remains a good idea today. If you jump in your car and drive south through the Los Angeles area, you will find yourself traveling from city to city without noticing any visual demarcation between them. It is nothing new. I remember driving in the 1950s from my parents’ house in Studio City to the Toluca Lake Bob’s Drive-In wondering what street defined the border of North Hollywood and Burbank. Having a defined border can help instill pride in our city and also provide other benefits.
However, slowing down or preventing urban sprawl is not something open space will accomplish. In reality, a green belt promotes urban sprawl. “How?” you might ask. First, a green belt of open space around Santa Clarita prevents the city from expanding outward, causing individuals who want to live inside the city to build projects with greater density on the available acreage. Second, as vacant land inside the city becomes a more valuable commodity, it causes prices to rise, making homes less affordable and less available to lower-income residents. Lastly, if an individual cannot afford the price tag on a home inside the city, they simply look on the other side of the green belt, where land and homes are more economically priced. Hence, the open space strategy promotes urban sprawl and makes housing inside the city less affordable. I do not believe any of this was unknown to city leaders. But the unintended consequences do not stop there.
Every year the Santa Clarita Valley suffers fire damage. The unintended consequences of open space and poorly maintained county easements are unfortunate. It is these spaces that provide the fuel for most fires in our area. Since our valley experienced a very wet rainy season this year, the fuel source created by the summer’s hot sun was even more jam-packed and ready to ignite. It doesn’t seem to matter if the brush is ignited by a car’s catalytic converter, a downed power line or a match. When the smoke begins to rise and the flames turn red and yellow, it takes a lot of our firefighters’ efforts to put it out. Then, if the situation gets bad enough and you are asked or told to evacuate, our lack of infrastructure also becomes apparent.
So, after carefully weighing both sides of this issue, I still believe a reasonably sized Green Belt around the city is a good idea, provided the city places a reasonable limit on its depth, incorporates fire brakes where open space backs up to residential properties, and provides adequate fire roads, including water availability. The wider the net of responsibility our council and staff casts, the more careful they need to be when determining a course of action, reviewing the benefits, analyzing the risks and thinking over the consequences. I’m sure our city staff will be up to the task, provided our city council makes this public safety issue a priority.