Back to the Future...
...and of similar interest: The 400 Club

Change and Preservation in San Juan County WA.

It’s no news that the Islands we love are changing.
They are doing so in response to large-scale, inter-related factors of economics, demographics and politics. To add to the difficulty, many of the “solutions” currently offered to alleviate the “problems” of development and growth only help to perpetuate the very difficulties that they seek to remedy.

What are some of the factors at work?

Social Change and Preservation
Change is a natural phenomenon, very little
in the known universe seems immune to it.
Landscapes and the people in them change in the same way that the larger society changes, by degree, by decree and by fashion.

Today, when we are exhorted to “save” and “preserve” at an unprecedented rate, it is worth remembering that
“saving” and “preserving” are not automatically good
in and of themselves, and that they carry a price,
whether it is a hidden one or not.

Our emphasis locally is on land and the preservation of open space
but what is not acknowledged is that by maintaining the outward appearance of a rural community through zoning, taxes,
regulation and the like we have weighted the scales in favor of the emergence of a wealthier, older population, cosmopolitan
in outlook and with income from sources outside the local economy.

Should we be surprised then to see them arriving?

In areas that are highly desirable and where land is limited in availability this sort of demographic shift can occur quite quickly as the case with Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard has shown.

Economic Factors and Considerations
The SJ island’s original agricultural and resource-based economy was, as always is the case, the first step for any newly opened area, but those times have long passed.

As Gordy Petersen has pointed out in a column for the Island Guardian, in the SJ islands our natural economic focus, what economists call our “comparative advantage”, would be on those factors of setting and climate that make life here uniquely attractive. Economically, construction and tourism were the engines that made it work in the past.

 To pursue this path has obvious consequences,
but so does the path of limitation and restriction.
Recent demographic numbers tell the story as plainly
and eloquently as anything else; young families are leaving
because of rising living costs, low wages and limited opportunity.

Land sales and development play an important part
in any local economy and on the islands the simple
law of limited supply and high demand plays a very strong
hand in trending prices up, but this is not the only factor.
A recent study showed the GMA has added $200,000 to the cost of constructing a new home in King County. Additionally, the falling purchasing power of the dollar due to Federal Reserve inflation has become a major factor in pushing the actual price levels above and beyond that which supply alone could achieve.

Inflation, speculation and the GMA amplify
the effects of demand and are the real culprits
behind the rise into the spectacular price levels
that are only now beginning to wind down. These factors are
far beyond the ability of local control to effect
in any way whatsoever. Therefore, any “remedies” applied here
will have only local effects and leave root causes unchanged.
In medicine it’s called symptomatic relief. And, as is always the case with medicine, there are side effects.

The Inflation/Tax cycle
Today the US dollar is inherently inflationary.
Dollar prices continue to rise in response to a loss in dollar value, a process that appears to be accelerating as of spring, ‘08.
Locally this means rising costs on every front including
state and local spending. Meanwhile, higher land prices
push up assessed values so that tax bills increase regularly,
each cycle ratcheting the process higher every time.

 (Weakness in the US economy has been disguised by
the dollar’s status as a global reserve currency. There are signs
(spring ’08) that this status may be undermined. A real inflationary spike (food, transportation, energy) would have a ripple effect
on who was able to live here and how that life might look.)

Job markets also change. There is competition and evolution.
Some established jobs disappear or find new homes.
New ones come on the scene too but the whole idea has changed. Willingness to work isn’t quite enough these days;
you need to bring something more,
skills or education, to the table.

The vague ruminations that we will somehow find a new industry or magic bullet to bring large numbers of well-paid jobs into the local economy are largely wishful thinking. The industries and occupations that survive here do so because they fit local conditions and needs.

Talk of “green collar” jobs is irresponsible and misleading unless those jobs arise organically out of community need; mandates, subsidies and make-work programs are not productive in an economic sense. Such programs are pure consumption, no matter what label they are given, and will only add to the spiral of debt we now face.

Realistically the job market here will continue to reward
special skills and services as it does now. Small-scale
entrepreneurs, publishers and other niche producers
are finding island life attractive but they typically
bring few or no jobs with them.

Jobs for consultants, administrators, social service
workers, bureaucrats and public employees and personal
assistants continue to be listed in the local paper regularly.

County government is now the largest single employer in SJC
and its number one growth industry. Advocates of “sustainability”
may want to add the long-term implications
of this fact to their list of concerns.

New Industry
Much lip service is paid by county officials to the task of creating economic health but one can’t help but notice that the number of regulatory hurdles that a new business start-up has to navigate increases each year. Few if any are removed. 

Recently two proposed restaurants in Eastsound gave
up the ghost, one without ever even opening a reportedly
disputed door. Difficulty and delays with permitting played a
part in each demise. Bankrupting a potential business before they
can even open their doors is not the way to bring jobs
and opportunities to our shores.

Conditional use permits and planning regulations
make innovation, expansion or renovation difficult,
expensive and a bit of an economic gamble as well.
Just because these hidden costs are hard to see and
difficult to calculate doesn’t mean that they don’t exist
or aren't increasing.

To protect what we have here is a fine thing,
but we need to be honest about what it is we are doing
and what the consequences are. That way we will be
spared the spectacle of county government promoting
policy on one hand, while trying to mitigate its side-effect on the
other. And who knows, better understanding may even lead
to more success in dealing with these issues in the future.

Island demographics have always been fluid,
even before Europeans came on the scene. It is no different
today as changes in transportation, employment,
communication, energy and business create new
opportunities and replace old ones. Although the land itself
doesn’t change, society does, so that while the “best use”
of a parcel in 1930 might be to grow strawberries,
in 2008 it’s highest value is in use as residential “view property”.

Obviously, when social and economic values change,
the population changes too. The strawberry farmers get
replaced by Microsoft engineers and the fruit packing
cooperative gets replaced by an all-organic, horse-drawn,
subscription-supported truck farmer. Times change.

Changes in transportation and communication
have steadily made the islands more accessible and
easier to live in. Financial deregulation that began in the
80’s and loose fiscal policy by the Fed (stocks and
DotCom madness) helped fuel a land boom in
SJC and saw a cycle of upward spiraling
prices that continues today.

Blessed by climate and being relatively undeveloped,
the SJ Islands became seen as a popular retirement
spot with the right sort of conditions to attract to
a new population. While these new arrivals
were by no means homogenous in makeup, according
to the various arcane laws of attraction, there came a
point when a numerically significant percentage of
new citizens sharing certain political agendas in
common began to emerge.

In SJC a large part of the economy is based in one way or
another on land value and development.
For a lot of people and institutions
including retirees, a controlled rise in land values
is a beneficial thing for the asset sheet. Restrictive
policy and open space acquisition, both of which
are quite popular here, are generally seen as tools
that are useful in maintaining high land values;
in most cases they contribute directly to it.

Demographics = Politics
Sooner or later, demographic change translates
into political change. New orders emerge and new
values and agendas come to the front.  Since there
are few aspects of current life that are not
considered fair game for official supervision, inspection,
or control, local politics is increasingly played for keeps.

In SJC some of this dynamic plays itself out
in attitudes towards property rights and land use
where there is a fairly clearly marked divide between
those who want to save the place and
those who simply wish to live here.

For at least some SJC residents,
dictating in mind-numbing detail
how the lives and homes of other citizens
should be organized
now appears to be a full-time occupation.

Human Ecology
A major problem with the sustainability movement today
is that at best it ignores people as an element of the landscape
and at the worst sees them as a dangerous scourge
that needs to be controlled at all times. The laws get written
as though each of your neighbors were salivating at the chance
to open a five-story motel/gift shop and accept nuclear waste shipments in return for cash.

Is that really how you see them?

Is the fact that there is a seasonal rivulet near their driveway after a heavy rain really cause enough to tell them that the new addition for the kids bedrooms is verboten?

If there was a drop in baby orcas comparable to the numbers
for young families we have lost, or if oyster catcher's stopped nesting
here in unprecedented numbers you can be pretty sure
the hue and cry would be raised. Where is the voice for those
families that we have lost already
and those that must leave tomorrow?

How healthy do you think the sort of economic and demographic stratification is that we are fostering through misguided policy?

What sort of future does it portend?

“Saving” the islands will change them as surely as
selling them will; the only way to lock them up in time
is to make them into a giant Henry Ford type Greenfield Village
on an island-wide scale.

If all you want to do is
save open vistas you have a much easier task;
all you need to do in that case is let only rich people
live here on twenty acres!

(Hold on! let’s not be extreme! How about one to five acres is OK
and we’ll even throw in a UGA too for good measure.)

As Greg Brown put it in the song Boomtown:

…the rich build sensitive houses
and pass their stuff around,
for the rest of us it's trailers
on the outskirts of town…

If there is a middle ground, we’ll need more than
platitudes and loose talk to figure out where that is.
Maybe some tolerance would help too.

 The more we fight to keep the original “rural” appearance (2)
of this island paradise, the less chance we have
of preserving the cultural diversity that one hears so much about.

(1): This subject is way too complex to go into here.

(2): Rural in this case means suburban with elbow room and deer on the lawn. Other earlier “rural” island landscapes included the Native American period (shell middens would probably be illegal today) vigorous first-growth logging, wide-spread farming operations, eel-grass damage and unsightly fishing infrastructure, mining, uncontrolled tourism, multiple commercial districts, and a complete lack of wetland protection.

Orcapod Home - Orcas Island Pages - 400 Club


the outward
appearance of a rural community...


Conditional use permits
& planning regulations
make innovation, expansion
or renovation difficult,
expensive and a bit of
an economic
gamble as well.


...the “best use” of a parcel in 1930
might be to grow strawberries,
in 2008 it’s highest value is in use as residential
“view property”.


“Saving” the islands
will change them as surely
as selling them will;
the only way to lock
them up in time is to
make them into a giant
Henry Ford type
Greenfield Village on
an island-wide scale.


...demographic shift
can occur quite
quickly as the
case with Nantucket
Martha’s Vineyard
have shown...

Local politics
is too often
played for