Saturday, February 7, 2004

It is sad but understandably true there are many places where the poor cannot afford to buy a house. California has the distinction of having many places where the affluent cannot afford to buy or build a house — and it is not necessarily a slam dunk for the rich.

A couple in San Mateo County who own 18 acres of land have spent more than a year and a half trying to get a preliminary permit, just so they can then apply for other permits to eventually build just one house on those 18 acres.

Even “open space” zealots should admit one house on 18 acres is hardly the bogeyman of “overcrowding” they invoke when they try to stop anybody from building anything. Whether this particular couple will be stopped only the future can tell.

If they are in good health and take care of themselves, they may yet live long enough to actually see the house built and to move into it. At a recent meeting of the San Mateo County Planning Commission, a 30-page staff report showed how many hoops this couple had jumped through thus far. And they now have only the preliminary permit to go seek other permits.

The planning commission staff report speaks volumes about what is wrong with the process of building even a single house in parts of California where environmental zealots abound.

The planning commission staff has taken it upon itself to analyze just where this one house can be allowed to be built on these 18 acres,to reduce its “visibility” from local highways. The bureaucrats want to “soften the visual impact of the development” — that is, this couple’s house.

The irony of this aesthetic concern is that some of the ugliest land in California is part of the “open space” rhapsodized about. Part of this space is brown withered grass throughout the long rainless summer. When you see green grass in California in the summer, it is usually where people live and have sprinklers.

The planning commission staff report orders that, during construction, “all holes shall be covered at night” to prevent certain frogs or garter snakes from entering them and being trapped when construction resumes the next day. And the builders must construct “exclusionary fencing around the entire construction area” to keep out those frogs and garter snakes.

To esure this is done, “a trained biologist or a trained on-site monitor should check the site daily” to see if any of these supposedly endangered species are present — “and if any are found, construction should be halted until they disperse naturally.” In other words, no shooing them away.

This is just scratching the surface. There are pages and pages of more micromanaging.

Neither this couple nor the San Mateo County Planning Commission are unique. Another couple building a home in Pebble Beach found they were not allowed to cut down some shallow-rooted tall trees that easily can blow over in the wind and fall on their house — or on them, for that matter.

No doubt there are reasons for each of the many restrictions and requirements bureaucrats think up. But people who spend their own money decide everything that can be done doesn’t have to be done, because often it just isn’t worth it. There is no such constraint when bureaucrats impose costs on others.

So what if you have to build an extra fence, halt construction in midstream or follow many other petty orders? It doesn’t cost the bureaucrats a dime.

It is not just people building their own homes who run into these piled-on extra costs. So do renters.

It was cause for celebration not long ago when construction startup was approved for an apartment building near San Francisco. Approval had been pending two decades. Rents will have to cover all the costs piled up over 20 years.

Meanwhile, the great mantra of “affordable housing” rings out across the land, often proclaimed by those who are making housing unaffordable, even for the affluent.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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