A relic of the recent past, before environmental zealots took over

June 02, 2005|By Thomas Sowell

ONLY IN CALIFORNIA would a city that is less than 50 years old have a historical society. But in California, anything more than a couple of decades old is considered historic and anything that is a century old is considered to be ancient history.

Nevertheless, the Foster City Historical Society has performed a useful service by publishing a little book titled simply Foster City. It details the building of an attractive middle-class community with about 30,000 people on what was once swamp land.

What makes this story of more than local interest is that Foster City is the kind of community that would be difficult to build today and, in many places, virtually impossible. The very idea of draining a swamp - a sacrosanct "wetland" - would arouse the fury of environmental zealots.

Legalistic hassles over "environmental impact" reports alone might be enough to bankrupt the builders. Environmental impact reports often have little or nothing to do with the environment and everything to do with stopping development.

Nothing is easier than to claim that there will be horrible environmental consequences from building something. Moreover, there is no penalty for making charges that can cost others millions of dollars to research and prove wrong.

The whole purpose of the charges may be precisely to cause builders to lose millions of dollars and perhaps have to give up the whole idea of building anything where the green zealots don't want anything built.

Foster City was built in the 1960s, just before the environmental protection racket went big-time, with the aid of legislation and court decisions that gave green zealots the power to impose huge costs on others at little or no cost to themselves.

Nowhere is that power wielded more ruthlessly than in San Mateo County, where Foster City is situated. But back when Foster City was built, the biggest challenges were physical.

In addition to draining the swamp, levees had to be built to hold back the tidewaters of San Francisco Bay, and the land had to be filled in to make it strong enough to support the weight of homes and buildings.

While Foster City is something of a triumph - a beautifully laid out community of attractive homes and condominiums, with parks and lovely lagoons on which boats sail, and miles of bicycle paths - it is also a reminder of the tragedy that no such community can be created today in many places, including the county in which it is situated.

It is not that there is no vacant land left in San Mateo County. On the contrary, more than half the county consists of vacant land on which laws forbid the building of anything. Yet environmentalists there, as elsewhere, conjure up a vision in which the last few patches of greenery are threatened with being paved over.

Even when they are proved wrong by inescapable facts, green zealots often fall back on runaway extrapolations, claiming that they must stop development now or there will be ever-increasing population densities, more pollution, more this, more that.

Runaway extrapolations are the last refuge of hysteria-mongers when confronted with facts that demolish their lies.

Ironically, many of the same people who have made "development" a dirty word that arouses outrage have nevertheless often looked favorably on "redevelopment."

What is the difference? Development means private initiative to build what people are willing to buy. Redevelopment means government tearing down "blighted" areas so that whatever bureaucrats and politicians want can be built. Few redevelopments are anywhere near as well done as Foster City.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His syndicated column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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