My fellow citizens

Essay by Ray Schoch

Politics – December 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

CREATING AND MAINTAINING a sense of community is not a concept invented by 21st century Americans. More than two thousand years ago, Plato wrote: “Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.”

And a good many Romans, a few centuries later, agreed with Horace, who wrote: “Your own safety is at stake when your neighbor’s wall is ablaze.”

Good communities don’t happen by accident — at least, that’s what I used to think. Then I became a planning commissioner.

My fellow-citizens want building codes that require their neighbors to maintain their property, but exempt them from maintaining their own.

My fellow-citizens want athletic fields; open space in the form of natural areas and parks; smooth, wide streets; protected viewsheds; excellent teachers in their uncrowded schools; safe and loving day care; cheerful and responsive public service from municipal employees; professional and public-spirited fire fighters and police; and they want this to be paid for by someone else.

My fellow-citizens want jobs and economic development, as long as those jobs don’t bring more people, create more traffic, necessitate new schools, or require new housing. They’d prefer that the workers for those new jobs live somewhere else — just where else isn’t important — but if new housing has to be built, they want it to be just like existing housing — only better.

Most importantly, they want the new, better housing to be built with no more than three houses to the acre, while avoiding sprawl, and preserving affordability and open space.

My fellow-citizens, living in expensive homes on a ridge at the west edge of town complain that a new development will spoil their view of the mountains, as if their homes have no effect on the view of those who live farther east. Open space disappears behind the “privacy” fences of “quality” subdivisions filled with big homes on large lots. Parks become athletic facilities (which are not the same thing at all), usable mostly by those young, skilled, or affluent enough to play the proper sport.

Commercial development near homes, which gives many “old towns” much of their charm, is frowned upon in “new towns,” where the phrase “corner grocery” has never been heard. Instead, “new town” residents want a separate shopping center, to which they have to drive, while complaining about the traffic.

My fellow-citizens have eleven thousand acres of undeveloped land in our town’s “growth management area.” A mere three hundred sixty of those acres are zoned for the sort of housing that might be within the financial reach of ordinary families. Our median family of four, with an income of about $60,000, cannot afford our median home, with a price of about $250,000. This means there’s no place in our community for the agricultural worker, the firefighter, the gardener, the teacher, the municipal employee, the day-care provider, the police officer, the retail worker, or the children of our community’s current residents. These people cannot afford to live in our community — only to work in it.

ONE FELLOW-CITIZEN, a former employee of a high-tech company that moved into town a decade ago, spoke in opposition to a “moderate-income” development at one of my very first planning commission meetings. He wanted to know when we — the planning commissioners — were going to stop the “Californication” of Colorado, as if his own job with that high-tech company, his home, his Subaru, his moving here — from Connecticut instead of California — had no impact.

Another fellow-citizen recently claimed to prefer what she called a “rural lifestyle.” By this, she meant living in an up-to-the-minute house, with its amenities, on several acres, a few minutes’ drive from both the interstate and a wide range of shopping opportunities. She wanted to be able to enjoy the bald eagles, the elk, the wildflowers — all of them apparently undisturbed by her house, her SUV, or her pretentions — from the comfort of her breakfast nook.

My fellow-citizens, can we legislate, or achieve through better planning, genuine community? Or are truly good places to live merely happy accidents — unrepeatable miracles that the rest of us can only envy — and that will themselves, like the wildflowers, fade and die?

Ray Schoch is a planning commissioner in Loveland, a wildflower photographer, and a retired teacher. He presented this at the 13th annual Headwaters Conference Nov. 8-10 at Western State College in Gunnison.