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The year of planning dangerously

Free-enterprise arguments from 2006 don't hold up

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When it came to local land use issues, the year just past went out with a bang.

The voters of Atascadero voted themselves into a future of smart growth and enlightened land use policy.

The County Parks and Recreation element update found itself playing the lead role in The Perils of Pauline with the Board of Supervisors, snatched off the railroad tracks at the last minute by a galvanized public, with the surprising support of Supervisor Harry Ovitt, as the Farm Bureau's choo-choo was bearing down.

The Rural Planned Development ordinance finally, mercifully, was allowed to die.

Lastly, Supervisor Katcho Achadjian donned his Coastal Commissioner hat and said he thought it would be a good idea to remove all of Coastal Commission staff's recommended mitigations from PG&e's $800-million Diablo Canyon steam generator replacement permit. A majority of heavily lobbied, wined-and-dined Commissioners nodded, PG&e's lobbyists smiled, and it was done: Diablo will continue to do massive damage to the marine environment for years to come with no public compensation to speak of. Who said there's no free lunch?

Having been involved in all of these issues, the Sierra Club is struck by the element all had in common namely, the arguments used at Atascadero City Council meetings, Board of Supervisors hearings, and in the editorial pages of The Tribune in opposition to the first three outcomes and in defense of the last one. Whether it's keeping the Atascadero Wal-Mart SuperCenter plan on life support, stripping public trails out of the Parks and Rec element, peddling the sprawl bomb that was the Rural Planned Development ordinance, or defending Katcho's bad call on Diablo, the argument seems always to come down to property rights and free enterprise vs. rights-trampling and creeping socialism.

On closer or even cursory examination, that argument does not hold up very well, and looks more like an argument for a God-given right of assumed privilege and selfishness.

The RPD ordinance was about facilitating the eclipse of our rural lands and natural open space, enriching land speculators beyond their wildest dreams, and providing job security for land surveyors and other friends of Achadjian and Ovitt the fathers of the RPD, who, after two years of public pounding, could no longer find any rationale to support it.

The opposition to public trails in the Parks and Rec element was really about making it as easy and profitable as possible for ag land owners, who enjoy public subsidies, to take ag land out of agriculture and reap the increased wealth from upzoning and urbanizing, but giving nothing in return. In its aggressive, literally flag-waving support for this unsupportable position (trails are unpatriotic?), the Farm Bureau simply went too far, and, again, even Ovitt and Achadjian had to step away from their friends and supporters.

The breaches of the public trust that swirled around the private, once-denied tÕte-á-tÕtes between the City of Atascadero and Wal-Mart, climaxing in the election of big box opponents and an exodus of city planners, have been downplayed in multiple Tribune Viewpoints urging a halt to all the fuss and finger-pointing and a return to business as usual, and arguing that Wal-Mart should now get a fair shake (unlike its employees, suppliers, and the ruined downtowns it has left in its tsunami-sized wake).

It is worth noting that the dawn of potential smart growth in Atascadero was made possible by the fuss and finger-pointing of relentless community activists like David Broadwater, and the relentless reporting of this very newspaper.

Thankfully, the candidates endorsed by the Sierra Club were elected in Atascadero, our efforts helped our rural lands dodge death by ordinance, and we were able to participate in the Herculean efforts on the part of so many to save the vision for parks and trails in the county for the next 20 years.

We can only hope that Coastal Commissioner Katcho has learned something from the public outcry over his nuclear crisis.

Win or lose, the Sierra Club always looks to such outcomes as instructive in teaching the difference between securing a public good and insisting on a private benefit at the expense of the general welfare. The general welfare, let us recall, is what the Constitution of the United States was ordained and established to promote. It's right there in the preamble, along with securing the blessings of liberty, which may be interpreted as including free enterprise and property rights when correctly defined and not used as a smokescreen for taking too many liberties, trying to secure all the blessings for yourself and your friends, and leaving the general welfare out in the cold.

Andrew Christie is director of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club.

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