We humans have a habit of overestimating what we do know, underestimating what we don’t know, and, all too frequently, ignoring the difference.
Consider long range planning. Pretend for a moment it’s April 1918. You’re a city council member in a medium size town at a council meeting listening to a consultant present a 1940 long-range development plan for your community. It’s a scholarly tome that runs to several hundred pages, all of them filled with charts, graphs, maps, statistics, assumptions and not a few disclaimers. The council approves the plan. Everyone declares victory. The consultant gets paid and the plan goes on a shelf in the archives to await discovery by a historical researcher in April of 2018.
The researcher looks at the plan and muses how little it has any resemblance to the world of 1940, much less 2018. Missing are the consequences of the Russian Revolution, the Versailles Treaty, the Roaring 20s, the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression, the rise of fascism in Europe, Japanese imperialism in the Far East, and the outbreak of World War II when Germany invades Poland on Sept. 1, 1939.
Cynical? Of course, but it makes the point that, as an exercise, whatever the technical merits of a long-range plan, its pretensions may not square with its assumptions, much less its findings and conclusions. That’s a cautionary tale for Prior Lake as our mayor and council develop the city’s 2040 plan. Here are some thoughts:
Since the end of World War II our underlying mechanism of suburban development has operated like a classic Ponzi scheme with ever-increasing rates of growth and development needed to sustain long-term liabilities.
Growth doesn’t pay for itself. Simply put, our current development pattern doesn’t create enough wealth to sustain the long-term infrastructure costs of maintaining what that development creates. Communities benefit from the growing tax base that comes with new development, but they take on the long term costs of maintaining the infrastructure that comes with it — not to mention the operating expenses of additional city services, new schools, police and fire protection and all the rest. This exchange — a near term cash advantage for long term obligations — is a classic feature of a Ponzi scheme. The cause is the auto-oriented, spread out nature of our development pattern. Ignore the real cost of development and, there’s little incentive to think about the unsustainable long-term operating and maintenance expenses inherent in this way of building.
Four thousand square foot homes on acre size lots are a recipe for high taxes, municipal insolvency, or both. The remedy is greater density and getting developers to pay more in impact fees up front for the long-term costs of the projects they create. Minnesota cities have tried this but have been stymied by a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that such fees are taxes and go beyond the legal authority of local governments. The Legislature would have to change the law, and it should. Our council should include it as a reminder in the 2040 plan.
There’s also the matter of taxes and housing costs. We are an aging population. Within the time frame of this 2040 plan the Baby Boom Generation will retire, bringing with it fundamental changes to the economy. From a work-based economy we’re moving to an entitlement economy as more and more retirees discover their pension savings are inadequate for increased health care and housing costs, putting more pressure on public budgets. Taxes go up but the wherewithal to pay them for older people on fixed incomes gets more problematical. Meanwhile, development goes on, and the need for more services, schools and the like keeps right on growing. Who’s going to pay the bills?
Housing is a good place to start and is an important consideration in preserving Prior Lake’s small town feel. Presently, there is a shortage of smaller, lower priced, so-called starter homes that are needed for new families, but also Baby Boomers in their retirement years. They have a place in Prior Lake’s 2040 plan. Historically, they’re kin to the bungalows that went up in the 1920s on small lots along the principal streetcar lines in Minneapolis and St. Paul — neighborhoods with alleyways, detached single car garages, sidewalks, boulevards, trees, churches, schools, and corner grocers. Every square block seemed a small town and community unto itself. The pattern persisted after World War II in early postwar development in Richfield and Bloomington, but then came the freeways, more automobiles, the decline of public transit, and the dispersed, low-density development we have, today. Now may be a good time to revive them.