Unions See Benefits to 'Smart Growth' Policy in Southern California

Once opposed to 'smart growth' initiatives, labor unions see focus on dense growth instead of sprawl as creating more jobs

Published: 04-Jan-2004

class=intro-copy>SAN DIEGO — A battle to curtail suburban sprawl around California's second-largest city feels like déjà vu. The same powerful interests that shot down protections for rural land six years ago are poised to torpedo a new ballot measure in March.

Except for a key difference. Organized labor, once opposed to any development curbs for fear of losing jobs, avidly supports the recycled voter initiative.

The building trades unions, usually wary of "smart growth" policies, have become convinced that those development practices hold potential for more jobs and better jobs than sprawl does.

"People will automatically say this initiative is anti-growth. It's not," says Jerry Butkiewicz, secretary-treasurer of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council. "We want to increase growth. We just want it to be dense, to stop this sprawl. It's killing us."

Unions are rethinking positions on sprawl and seeing benefits in smart growth for their members, especially in booming California and Nevada, where land-use issues are divisive.

"It's been a sea change that nobody noticed, an evolution," says Tim Frank, a senior policy adviser for the Sierra Club's national sprawl campaign.

Labor gives the anti-sprawl coalition of environmentalists and proponents of mass transit a potent new ally that has political resources and clout in the construction industry. "Union members have an interest in seeing development that's more compact, that builds on the assets of cities and older suburbs, that don't support the low-road economy — these big-box retailers at the fringe," says Bruce Katz, director of the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy at the Brookings Institution, a think tank.

Countering a 'misguided notion'

A study released last month by Good Jobs First, a non-profit research center in Washington, D.C., found that over a 10-year period, metro areas with growth controls had nearly a third more construction than areas without such policies. Rehabilitating buildings, developing idle urban land and reclaiming toxic sites for building — all smart-growth priorities — were more labor-intensive than sprawl, the study found.

"Unions just assumed growth limits meant fewer jobs for their members," says Phil Mattera, Good Jobs First's corporate research director. "Our report shows that's a misguided notion."

Smart-growth advocates say sprawl expands suburbs haphazardly with large lot sizes in subdivisions that create more traffic congestion and chew up open space. They push for high-rise residential construction and urban redevelopment, ideally close to mass transit. When cities must expand, smart-growth values call for denser, pedestrian-friendly housing near jobs and shopping to cut traffic.

But today, smart growth has become a mom-and-apple-pie term embraced by disparate groups that define it to fit their needs. Environmentalists and the housing industry, frequently at odds, both support smart growth but disagree on how much open land should be off-limits to development.

Along with arguments that it creates more jobs, smart growth complements other union priorities. Labor fights "big-box" retailers such as Wal-Mart because they're non-union. Labor's smart-growth allies blame those companies for hastening sprawl.

But union leaders also say smart growth enriches their members' lives by producing less traffic, cleaner air, shorter commutes and more open space. "Union members not only work in these places, they have to live there, too," says Bob Balgenorth, president of the California Building Trades Council.

Labor is not yet a united bloc behind smart growth. In 2000, union opposition helped defeat ballot measures to curb sprawl in Arizona and Colorado. But two years ago, the AFL-CIO urged unions to get active in the sprawl debate. And more of them are:

In San Jose, Calif., unions backed a move to convert marginal downtown commercial and industrial space to high-density residential units. They also supported a sales-tax hike for mass transit.

• In Contra Costa County, Calif., unions successfully opposed several large suburban housing projects and backed an urban growth boundary to protect open space and farmland.

• In Las Vegas, where drought forced water-use restrictions, the Teamsters have called for growth limits in the nation's fastest-growing metro area until new water supplies are found.

"I'd rather lose a couple hundred jobs today than a couple thousand in five years when the builders go somewhere else," says Ray Isner, political organizer for Teamsters Local 631. "Why can't Las Vegas be second, third or fourth in growth but be No. 1 in smart growth?"

Protecting rural land

In San Diego, a county of 2.9 million people more than three times the area of Rhode Island, conservationists have grown impatient with the county's efforts to protect its undeveloped eastern two-thirds. A new zoning plan, nearly a decade in the making, won't be finished before 2005. Groups such as Save Our Forests and Ranchlands (SOFAR), sponsor of the ballot measure, fear more land will be lost in the meantime.

In 1996, a judge found the county's stewardship of open land so inept that she gave SOFAR temporary authority over land-use decisions.

But opponents, including elected county supervisors, say SOFAR's Rural Lands Initiative would bypass public hearings and environmental reviews and let city voters decide smaller communities' fate against their will. Opponents also fear housing shortages and higher home prices.

The measure would block sprawl by prohibiting lot sizes smaller than 40 acres just east of San Diego's cities and smaller than 80 acres in the backcountry. A similar measure lost badly in 1998 without union backing.

Momentum may have turned since then. Endorsements from the League of Women Voters and the American Lung Association could offset opposition from builders, the chamber of commerce and others. The blessing of Ellen Revelle, an influential member of one of San Diego's oldest families, gives the measure an establishment imprimatur.

Unions, on the fence in 1998, could deliver the decisive edge by urging their 120,000 members to vote and committing money and volunteers to work precincts, staff phone banks and produce mailers. Butkiewicz says the labor council will lobby union contractors, arguing that most suburban projects go to their non-union competitors anyway.

"The public on a much wider scale now sees the insanity of unplanned growth," SOFAR President Duncan McFetridge says. "But sprawl politics is vicious here. It's going to be a battle."

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