Tuesday, July 22, 2008

a query on Mormonism

My freshman roommate Martin asked me how I reconciled some of my previous beliefs like atheism and basing things off empirical evidence with my Mormon faith.

My reply:

"For me, my main problem with religion was the simple truth question: if you're asserting some religious claim., how do you know that? I never really disliked religion, I just didn't think it was true.

As a result, I was more of an agnostic than an atheist, prizing (then and now) empiricism and the scientific way of knowing things. It was one extended passage from the Book of Mormon - extremely well-cited and beautifully empiricist - that helped start and sustain me on the path to belief: "And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good"...and so on.

Personally reconciling that outlook with the Mormon faith....I still see atheism is a coherent (lack of) religious belief, even if I am no longer an atheist. Interestingly, though, LDS thought starting with Joseph Smith is infused with heavy doses of gnosticism and empiricism, as well as a general prizing of religious and secular knowledge and a willingness to accept other traditions as good or even partially inspired by God.

Something I've realized about myself is that in my yearning for knowledge, more than anything else I yearn for frameworks to look at things. Like economics looks at frameworks of incentives in understanding how society works. (=why I'm an econ major)

When I was in Florida last summer, the man who eventually baptized me was insistent than the LDS framework was extremely conducive to a scientific, emprirical mindset, pointing to LDS scriptural verses like "the glory of God is intelligence." That was my big intellectual roadblock to faith; when I came around to Adam's view and had spiritual experiences (=evidence), then I believed.

But about the empiricism thing - think about LDS beliefs that man can become like God, or that the latter-day church has additional truths that are not available in other Christian denominations.

On those bases, a traditional methods of copping-out of theological dilemmas simply doesn't fly. That being, saying we can't understand God's ways, our understanding is microscopic compared to His, and citing Isaiah 55:9 ("For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts"). I do still hear that occasionally, especially re: not wanting to admit mistakes like denying blacks the priesthood.

Of course, you have the church's reputation (somewhat deserved, but not really) for being authoritarian and hierarchal...but I see the sort of synthesis of empiricism and religion - not to mention individual free agency - as basic in Mormonism and am quite willing to ignore quotes from past conservative church leaders to the contrary."

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Mega-development series

This is my a 24,000 word series -- in short, a somewhat pointed attempt to chronicle half a century of (lack of) economic development in sleepy Glenn County, CA -- a small rural county with then-15% unemployment and a palpable lack of youth. Big stories in bold.

History: approved, successful projects: 
History: rejected projects: 
Economics: The broader picture:
Local color:

Thunderhill: thawing the development freeze

Thunderhill: thawing the development freeze
By Sam Bhagwat
of the Valley Mirror
And then there was Thunderhill.
The racetrack outside of Willows ranks with the Johns-Manville factory – the two big Glenn County developments in the last half-century.
For director David Vodden, it was an education in how the planning process actually worked.
And with friendly supervisor Dick Mudd on his side, he was able to successfully tack against the wind.
According to an economic analysis prepared by Chico State’s Center for Economic Development, the racetrack has generated 301 jobs in the county.
So if Thunderhill evaporated tomorrow, the Glenn County unemployment rate would soon climb to 11.5% from 9.1%.
For the 15 years since the track was built, Thunderhill director David Vodden has been relaying his education on planning to fellow racing enthusiasts.
“It’s like a girl,” said Mr. Vodden.
He cuts off before continuing his courting analogy, exclaiming, “I can’t tell you that!”
When he started, he thought that would mean finding and buying land and telling county planning officials, “Hi, I’m David Vodden, and we want to put (a racetrack) here.”
“That failed in Stanislaus County,” he says. “It failed in Solano. We tried in Fresno” – but that failed too.
In Stanislaus, he remembers it being “very, very serious,” spending “not millions, not hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
In those counties, he took out an option on the land, designed a track, and used lots and lots of volunteer time – and then asked planning if he could build it.
“Nobody said, ‘when pigs fly.’”
“They say, fill out this form, fill out that form,” only to kill the project at the end.
“Neighbors understood the project as impacting them personally, and because they’d been there a long time...”
He did it that way, because, he recalls, “that’s the way we understood the system worked.”
The lesson he learned?
Give the reins to county officials, he saTys. Go to them and feed them this line: “Our future is in doubt. We want to build a home for the next 50 years. Would you be interested?”
“Then you ask, ‘where would we put such a facility?’”, Mr. Vodden says.
When he saw a San Francisco Chronicle front-page story on Yuba County being broke, he decided to go there, on the theory that “they might not turn out the military to oppose us.”
In the meeting, he found a silver bullet: Dick Mudd, Glenn County supervisor and racing fan.
Mr. Mudd did a lot of leg work, persuading people that the project would be an opportunity and not the downfall of the community.
“Being associated with someone local who was trusted and who could vouch for the project” definitely helped, Mr. Vodden recalls.
“I wasn’t Jesus,” Mr. Mudd says.
Knowing that the piece of property on which the track ended up being built was for sale, he told David Vodden about it.
Living in the area, Mr. Mudd knew a piece of land up for sale. It was, as Mr. Vodden says charitably, “kind of marginal farmland.”
So with the local dislike to building on good soil defrayed, Mr. Mudd went around to defray concerns about what type of people it would attract.
“This was a project that could have been, and probably was, misunderstood,” Mr. Vodden explained.
“Was it a circle track, a drag strip, what?  Racing people are, ‘fill in the blank.’”  
Mr. Mudd went around the county and asked people what they thought.
“They said, ‘hell, we’re going to have those people here?’”, he recalls. “Hell’s Angels were going around raping and throwing beer on people then.”
“And anyone coming out of San Francisco is subject to scrutiny.”
“They didn’t understand that the people coming here had money.”
“No one would have understood the actual demographic profile of the road racer,” Mr. Vodden agrees. “So that would have been misunderstood and possibly misused too.
Mr. Mudd said he took a lot of time, both in his district and others, to convince people.
To him, the main problem was a mindset thing.
Living in the country, “you get a bit on the independent side” and liable to pipe up when a big facility is proposed in your backyard.
Some requirements were still skirted around. The land got a tax break under the Williamson Act, which allows horse racing, but, it looked like, not auto racing.
The reaction then?
“Hell, those cars got a lot of horsepower,” Mr. Mudd recalls, laughing.
“Only this last year, the racetrack had to buy its way out of the Act, under scrutiny. It cost a lot of money.”
What was the eventual reaction to Mr. Mudd’s sales pitch?
“They said, 'if you think it’s all right, Dick, then we’re okay with it.'”
“Clearly Dick Mudd mitigated a great many unknown variables that could easily have been misunderstood,” Mr. Vodden says.
Otherwise, people could have “paint(ed) a picture of the project that, no matter how inaccurate, would have been fuel for opposition to a race track.”
Then, such perceptions could have been “easily used to stop the project by everyone and anyone who may have wanted to stop it for personal reasons or on general principles.”
“I think I was the only one on the board that knew about racing,” Mr. Mudd says. “The rest of the board – if (Thunderhill) suited me, it suited them.”
Mr. Vodden says he’ll never know for sure what would have happened without Mr. Mudd, and others also helped out a lot.
“But I think Dick did make the difference,” he concludes.

For the Thunderhill story:

What? The Thunderhill racetrack west of Willows.
Who? Proposed by David Vodden,
When? 1992
So what? Was rejected in Solano, Stanislaus, and Fresno counties first; today, provides 300 jobs, mostly because of visitors.
For: Willows Chamber of Commerce
Against: Rice farmers, Golden Pheasant Inn proprietor Jack Ortner
Killed by: Surprisingly, nobody – thanks in large part to the efforts of rancher, racing fan, and then-supervisor Dick Mudd.

No pen for Glenn

No pen for Glenn 
By Sam Bhagwat
of the Valley Mirror
A clean, recession-proof industry, said local fans.

And servicing the 1700 facility residents would require a staff of 700, promoters trumpeted.

Those potential area newcomers?

Inmates of a state prison, probably a Level III medium security, proposed for Glenn County in 1985. But while the possible new residents concerned locals, it was worries about their relatives that probably doomed the project.

“It’s the type of people the prison would draw to your community,” then?-and-now supervisor Keith Hansen says. “Why, for a few more tax dollars, would we want to give (that) up?”

The chances were 50-50 of a prison coming here if the political climate was favorable, Department of Corrections officials told economic development commissioners in a Nov. 1985 meeting.

It wasn’t.

First floated in June 1985, the proposal eventually died a year later on the June 1986 ballot, with a measure asking the state to perform a study on the topic going down in flames. The tally: 1941 for, 4542 against. Turnout here was 65 percent, compared to 40 percent statewide.

Ink flowed in the pages of the Willows Journal, with 30 letters in the opinions page in the month before the election. Nine were for the measure, 21 against; almost the same percentage as the vote.

Why did people go against the prison?

Largely because of then then-judge Roy MacFarland, Mr. Hansen says.

“People trust the judge,” he says.

Citizens were concerned over the social effects of a prison – prison families moving to the area, the prison decreasing the quality of life, engulfing the community.

Opponents seemed fairly organized; with former county auditor Joe Sites remembering a three-person group including himself and Judge MacFarland that would take turns speaking at public meetings.

Asked about their personal impression of the proposed prison, many recount personal experiences or conversations with those who have dealt with one.

“I grew up in San Rafael next to San Quentin,” then-Willows city manager Russ Melquist says. “I saw no bad effects compared to the number of jobs.”

Asking the Lassen County auditor about the prisons in Susanville, former county auditor Joe Sites was told that they were nothing but trouble.

Though sometimes exactly what information Lassen County officials had to offer wasn’t apparent at the time.

In a July 3, 1985 Willows Journal article, Glenn County sheriff Roger Roberts said he had talked to his counterpart in Susanville, who told him that “welfare and drug problems quadruple” when a prison moves to the area. He worried about the extra cost of investigating crimes committed at the facility about delays in state reimbursement of such cost.

“’My budget is already under fire,’ concluded Sheriff Roberts. ‘How do I handle the extra crime?’”

So the Lassen County sheriff thought the prison had been a bad thing, right?

Maybe not: two months later, economic development commissioner Pat Silva recounted how her initial opposition to a prison melted when she toured the prison in Susanville with a group from Glenn County, remarked upon returning.

“We met with a supervisor, the sheriff, the police chief and state officials,” Mrs. Silva said. “Everyone said, ‘we can’t say enough about the prison.’”

The prison’s upside: jobs.

Glenn County’s unemployment rate then was, conservatively, 15 percent. Data is not readily available; we estimated using available local data from four years later and 1986 state data. Contemporary letter writers arguing for the prison because of the jobs it would bring gave unemployment figures of “more than 12 percent” and 16.5 percent.

That is, between one in six and one in eight Glenn County-ites looking for work then could not find it.

“Glenn County’s economy is shattered,” Mr. Wiest wrote then in favor of the prison.

The prison would offer 700 jobs and a $19 million payroll, but a big question was how many would be held by locals. Opponents Bernhardt Kaiser and Sarah Odom said only 10 percent; corrections officials said 75 percent; one supporter said 50 percent.

And around another 350 jobs would be created indirectly as a result of the prison, corrections officials and local supporters said – teachers, gas station attendants, and so on. We’ll guess half of these jobs would be held by locals, not new people moving in.

Using opponents’ 10 percent figures and our guess, a prison would have lowered the unemployment rate about two-and-a-half percent. Put another way, about one out of every six people out of work then would get a job.

In conversation with Mr. Hansen, soon after talking about the prison, he mentions how he’s having trouble finding reliable, hard workers to farm his land. What’s missing, he says, is usually someone’s willingness to work, not employment for them around the county.

“Most of the people who want a job have a job,” he says.

Records in the Journal show concerns over power of the prison in the community, economic and social.

“A prison is here forever and ever, never getting smaller, just getting larger and engulfing our whole area and county,” wrote grandparents “Mr. and Mrs. A.H. Manos Jr.”

“People move here because of the quality of life,” Alice MacFarland told the Journal, in an article profiling leading prison opponents. “What would the quality of life be with a prison here?”

“From my experience living in Glenn County, as well as my experience living very near a prison, I feel that the costs of a prison outweigh the benefits considerably,” wrote high school teacher Dennis Halley. The costs he listed, in addition to a greater need for the courts and law enforcement, were changes in the county’s “rural and agricultural atmosphere and character.”

District Attorney Craig Stevenson echoed Sheriff Roberts’ concerns about costs.

“We would have to provide jurors for four-week murder trials,” he said. “We would also have to provide the entire judicial system needed for all these felony cases (which some expected to double), including the public defender, court rooms, prosecutors, judges, the whole deal.”

The volume of letters to the Journal shows a heated debate, with many facts under dispute. Rather vehement opinions were on display, especially around Willows councilman Matt Wiest.

Would a prison have come here if Measure A was passed? “Almost certainly,” wrote former Orland city councilwoman Darlene Friesen in a letter to the Journal. “More garbage,” responds Mr. Wiest to the idea, one column later. “From a feasibility study, there are at least half-dozen additional steps where public input is required for a stop or go decision.”

Today, Mr. Wiest recalls the farmer and prison opponent Tom Ratliff: “Over the prison, I lost his friendship. Certainly his family never talked to me again.”

“I probably said some things I shouldn’t have.”

Perhaps like this one, in a letter to the Journal: “In fact, the probability of (a prison) being built is slim to none even if the measure passes with a 90 percent vote. I would even be willing to bet all of Tom Ratliff’s money on that.”

But in the end, the only thing on the ballot less popular on the June 1986 ballot than the prison was current sheriff’s lieutenant Phil Revolinsky, then a candidate for the high office. (Lt. Revolinsky went down to incumbent sheriff Roger Roberts, getting only 18 percent of the vote.)

Reading old articles on the prison, one notices a theme in development battles, perhaps expressed most prominently in debates over a 1982 Artois mobile home park. Opponents admit a need for this type of development, but argue that the current proposal was not the way to solve the problem.

“Why don’t we seek out something else to bring jobs?”, commented Mrs. MacFarland. “This would be a great place for a central warehouse. The city of the county might put up some land to entice something like that.”

Letter writer Donna Barron agreed, quoting a consultant who said that Glenn County has much to offer, but that the county was doing a poor job of selling itself.

“I know that Glenn County and its citizens can do better than a prison,” she concluded. “There must be better options out there that our elected officials can come up with!”

There must be better options out there that our elected officials can come up with!

Unfortunately, Ms. Barron seemed to view development the same way others view second marriages.

“The triumph of hope over experience.”

Summary: (box this)
What? A state prison corrections officials were “50-50” on putting in Glenn County, if the local political environment was favorable. It wasn’t.
Who: 1700 inmates would have resided in the prison, probably a Level III medium security.
When? 1985 and 1986
So what? Would have provided about 1000 prison and support jobs. Locals would get, conservatively, 250; the number is probably closer to 500 or 600.
For: Former Willows councilman Matt Wiest, many local merchants
Against: Judge Roy MacFarland, DA Craig Stevenson, Sheriff Roger Roberts, county auditor Joe Sites
Killed by: Seventy percent of voters in the June 1986 election; a proposal to ask the state to study the issue, the first step, was on the ballot.

‘Controlled growth’ is meaningless term

‘Controlled growth’ is meaningless term

By Sam Bhagwat
of the Valley Mirror

Interviewed in January about re-election, supervisor John Amaro said economic development would be on his platform. “My biggest interest is growth of the county and being part of that,” he said. “Keeping the rural way of life while keeping job opportunities.”

“I feel like agriculture is a big part of Glenn County, but planned growth is a part too,” said recent supervisor candidate Bill Payer in March.

add details from your interviews if you would like.

If those statements seem well-meaning but, well, meaningless, that’s because they are.

What exactly does agriculture with planned growth mean? About the same as a rural way of life with job opportunities” – very little. I’m for agriculture means something. So does I’m for creating job opportunities or I’m for encouraging growth.

In Glenn County, the two are usually opposed. So when you put the yin and the yang together, you’ve got a whole spectrum of options, and the precise meaning is very hard to nail down.

But don’t be too hard on Mr. Payer or Mr. Amaro. The problem is endemic, afflicting experienced politicians with many more whiskers on their cheek.

“I’m for controlled growth,” says former supervisor and rancher Dick Mudd. Growth, he said, should not be detrimental to society or to the landscape.

“I’d hate this area developing like LA,” said former Willows city councilman Matt Wiest. “I thought if we could control it” development would be good.

“We need any kind of growth we can get,” says former Willows city manager Russ Melquist, before quickly adding: “Good growth. Good development.”

Jamison Watts, the head of a land trust helping farmers obtain easements keeping land in farming, says he’s not anti-development, he’s for controlled development.

“The object of (the program) is not to block development,” he says. “The last thing we want to do is get in the way of county and city planning department. (It’s) just one way to protect farmland for future generations.”

There’s a convergence towards meaningless language here. One is in a world where, as a Alice Through the Looking Glass character put it, that “when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less."

Mr. Watts helps farmer get subsidies for destroying the rights to develop their land.

Mr. Mudd is a former supervisor who was instrumental in bringing Thunderhill here in 1992, but vocally opposed to a proposed prison in 1985, and refers to a coal plant proposed in 1978 as “one of the things we jumped up and shot down.”

“It was going to be a disruption,” said Mr. Mudd. “You’re going to be overrun. You’d have to have a monstrous pile to put the coals. The railroad (coming through.)”

“Whenever you come and build up coal plants, prisons,” Mr. Mudd said, “a lot of us think, the minute you cover up this property, you better have a darn good reason.

Mr. Wiest who moved here from Southern California in 1959 and ran for council shortly thereafter. When this reporter mentions Mr. Wiest’s positions, rancher and former supervisor Dave Soeth, says that sometimes, people come from L. A. and “want to make Glenn County like where they came from.”

Though Mr. Soeth emphasizes he doesn’t really know Mr. Wiest, the pro-development shoe definitely fits.

Mr. Wiest was key in bringing Johns-Manville here, outspoken in favor of both the coal plant and prison, and growth in general. On the coal plant, he engaged in a very public debate with supervisor and opponent Jean Rumiano, and was accused of being a PG&E stooge.

On the prison, he remembers losing the friendship of farmer and opponent Tom Ratliff. In the midst of the debate, he began a letter to the editor with the remark “my friends have asked me – all two of them,” continued by calling some opponents’ claims ‘more garbage’ and ending by sarcastically offering to bet all of Tom Ratliff’s money that no prison would come to Glenn County even if a study was approved.

Mr. Melquist seems mildly wistful that the coal plant didn’t end up here, before concluding it probably was a good thing after all, because “coal was probably not the place to look for energy. “And though he recalls strong opposition to the proposed prison, he says he personally thought it would have been good for the county.

The group runs the spectrum from pro- to anti-development. All except Mr. Watts have a long and extensive involvement.

And yet, when they put forth their general positions, you can barely tell which belongs to whom.

‘Private property’ not much better

‘Private property’ not much better
By Sam Bhagwat
of the Valley Mirror

Plumbing fourteen years of Willows Journal stories on development, one will occasionally stumble about historical gems buried in dusty microfilm.

Probably the most ironic begins on April 17, 1981, when at the behest of the Glenn-Colusa Board of Realtors, Willows mayor Ernie Matlock declared April 19 through 25 to be Private Property Week.

The proclamation:

“Of all the rights we have, one of the most precious is the right to acquire real property and to own it, use it, or transfer it as we see fit, without interference, as long as we do not infringe on the rights of others.

This right to private ownership of real property has generated other fundamental American liberties, including the free enterprise system and political freedom-principles that have built this nation into the world’s greatest.

In order that property owners may exercise these rights while maintaining and preserving them in the future, it is necessary for all of those to understand and protect our rights to own real property now.”

Two months later after that gem of rhetoric passed, developer James Orosco applied for a permit to build 450 mobile homes on a parcel north of Artois.

He bought the land for a cool half-million, and spent another $100,000 preparing the application and fighting for approval. Today, that sum of money is worth about $1.4 million.

Admittedly; the good citizens of Artois had nothing to do with a Willows council proclamation.

But from the crisp, high-minded language to the messy political battle, the loophole of ‘not infringing on the rights of others’ expanded through the roof.

And that caused the general idea of a ‘right to own and use real property as we see fit’ to be seemingly tossed out the window.

So: it’s not that the term ‘private property’ is meaningless, but it is vague enough to drive a truck through. Few mean it – or perhaps even think of it.

Consider a planning commission hearing covered by the Journal.

“It seems like the citizens of Artois don’t want a thousand new people here,’ chairman Vernon Vereschagin said.

To which a chorus of ‘that’s right(s)’ rang back.

“We don’t care if it’s 437 or 37,” Artois resident Barbara Petersen told the commissioners. “We don’t want it...we don’t need it.”

“Amen,” declared the group.

Other concerns were raised that seemed directly contrary to ‘use as you see fit.’

Consider the following excerpt from a speech by Chico environmental activist Patrick Porgans, hired by Artois citizens to oppose the project. This is from two pages of transcript, in which he urges more stringent conditions for the project’s I-5 noise barrier.

“The noise levels of the calculated noise are in excess of those allowed for residential units, since mobile homes are just recently beginning to have qualities equivalent to sound insulated, single family homes. There are two things that need to be done. One, a grated separation between the dwelling units and the sound source. A properly constructed noise barrier may be satisfactory, but this would depend on the type of material used. A board fence has good sound reduction qualities, but is not adequate enough...”

Or Supervisor Stephen Blacet, in the only remarks of a 55-page transcript discussion, before voting to deny the project.

“It is a fact that we are going to have to start and bring up the future of transportation in this County; I can see that this problem is getting bigger. There will be more demand. I don’t know that the idea of a project is good; I only wish it were closer to a large city, either Orland or Willows. The use of the gasoline alone, energy, going nearly seven miles from Orland, probably the same distance from Willows every time anyone goes out, that is extra energy being used. The police and fire protection would be better, if they were closer to a big city.”

Or Supervisor Fred Pride’s conclusion, explaining why he was seconding the motion to deny the project:

“As a result of my review of the EIR, in regard to a no project, I don’t feel that this project best serves the needs of our community. The overall future general housing needs of Glenn County might be best constructed in locations and in such manner as to better serve specific needs.”

Or Supervisor Jean Rumiano’s extended discussion of why no one could afford to live in the mobile home park (why would a developer build a park he couldn’t expect to sell?) and conclusion, before making said motion:

“When I look at a development of this size, I find it very difficult to say to myself, yes, I want to make Artois a big place. I have a hard time in my own conscience trying to come to terms with 426 units in a community the size of Artois.”

Private property, private property...anyone?

In the course of researching this series, this reporter spoke with several prominent Glenn County farmers and ranchers involved with the issue – Keith Hansen, Dick Mudd, Dave Soeth.

When asked about the common charge that the ag community is blocking growth, to the detriment of the county, the farmers and ranchers generally object.

They point to particular ag developments they like and support, like an olive oil processing plant planned for Artois, and a rice straw plant the Boyd family has been trying to build for twenty years.

That’s the flavor of development, they say, that unequivocally fits and blends with Glenn County.

It’s a defense that’s been leveled in the past as well.

In October 1985, when Willows Journal publisher Joe Bradley accusing a “no-growth” faction of farmers of blocking a proposed prison, several took offense.

Jim Aguiar, John Vereschagin, Joel Wright, and Walter Jasper – former members of the Glenn County Housing Authority – replied vehemently to Mr. Bradley.

“We can understand, Mr. Bradley, that you have not been in Glenn County long enough to know the past history of what some of the “No Growth” citizens have done to try to promote a work force and help bring income into the county, so we would like to try to enlighten you to a few facts.

“In 1976, the Glenn County Housing Authority was reactivated, and a new committee was appointed by the Board of Supervisors to try to get some housing for agricultural workers in the county. The thought behind the effort was to provide housing to get and keep a stable work force in the county. The people who were appointed to this housing authority worked for three years – at no cost to the county – to get information on types of housing, costs involved, number of workers needed, and whatever else information was needed for such a large project. They also learned how money could be made available through the Federal Government – again at no cost to the county – which could be paid back from the inhabitants of the houses. The project was supported by the sheriff’s department.

“Would you believe what groups were the largest opponents of the project? The cities of Orland and Willows, and the real estate people. Do you know why the issue lost to the (popular) vote? Because the real estate people put out a large campaign against it, and convinced the people in our cities that we were going to have a huge influx of unwanted people (known as farm laborers – mixed by color and creed).

“Sincerely, former members of the now disbanded Glenn County Housing Authority.”

Supes’ arbitrary excuses killed Artois mobile home park

By Sam Bhagwat
of the Valley Mirror
Artois population, 1981: 240

Artois population, 2000: 209

Sitting directly north of the hamlet, across County Road 33, lies a sleepy 100 acres of land – sandwiched between the old highway and the new freeway, cut across by meandering Walker Creek.

It was once slated for far bigger plans.

In 1980, Bay Area developer James Orosco came to town with plans to build a mobile home park that would overshadow the existing city.

The 457 units would hold 1100 people, overshadowing Artois.

While Mr. Orosco touted planned features like open space, sewage treatment facilities, year-round ponds, and a community center with billiard room, conference room, and pool, many neighbors were very skeptical and extremely vocal.

In the end, their opposition not only killed the project, it unearthed a conflict of interest resulting in the resignation of the planning director.

The repercussions still rebound, and not just in county planning lore.

For example: do you rent your home, or have you bought it since 1982?

Reach into your wallet; take out a Hamilton and a Lincoln – that’s $15. Find a friend with a lighter. And set the bills ablaze.

That’s the average impact through higher payments, once a month, every month, for every renter and recent buyer, because the project didn’t go through.

And sifting through the reasons the project was denied, one finds only thin straws.

There were a couple of reasonable justifications, buried in several nonsensical ones upon which supervisors based decisions.

“The use of the gasoline alone going nearly seven miles from Orland, probably the same distance from Willows every time anyone goes out. That is extra energy being used!”

So said supervisor Stephen Blacet, giving his only explanation as to why he voted against the project in 55 pages of transcript.

And one big, broken promise.

“There is a need” for mobile homes, then-and-now supervisor Keith Hansen said, before voting to block the project. “If we turn down this project, we have an obligation to develop alternatives.”

That didn’t happen.

The average household living in the park, the application said, would be a husband and wife near middle-age, along with a child or two, with income from $10,000 to $14,000. The medium family income in California in 1981 was about $15,000.

The proposed park probably wouldn’t bring additional people to Glenn County, then-planning director Ed Howard wrote after his conflict of interest was discovered, but instead “tend to concentrate some of the natural growth in one small area.”

There were a lot of unanswered questions, recalls Valley Mirror managing editor Donna Settle, then a secretary for Paul Heyrand, a leading opponent.

“Paul was opposed for selfish reasons – it would have been across the street for him,” she says. But others, she said, were worried about the flooding.

That was one of two legitimate issues in the debate; these still seem thin reeds for rejection. The other:

“‘It seems like the citizens of Artois don’t want a thousand new people here,’ then-Planning Commission chairman Vernon Vereschagin said at a hearing, recorded in a Willows Journal article.

To which a chorus of ‘that’s right(s)’ rang back.

‘We don’t care if it’s 437 or 37,’ Barbara Petersen told the commissioners. ‘We don’t want it...we don’t need it.’

‘Amen,’ declared the group.”

The land had been zoned “planned development” since 1973.

With some opponents, no dialogue was possible. Witness the following sequence at a town hall meeting, also recorded in the Journal.

“When the floor was opened for questions and discussion, one unidentified listener commented that he thought the cost of the park was too high.

‘A guy gets in over his head and you can’t get him out.’

When asked about what kind of rules the park would have, (builder James) Orosco answered, ‘Very, very stringent rules.’

The man in the audience responded to the remark by saying: ‘Very stringent rules. That makes them come into town and do what they want. These kids will come into town and they all have their cigarettes in their pockets and they’re not Lucky Strikes.’

Mr. Orosco responded to the remark: ‘I disagree with every single thing you say.’”

The legitimate concerns

Supervisors focused on two substantial points, sometimes buried in lots of additional armchair quarterbacking. (We’ll get to that later.)

But even these are thin straws for rejection.

Concerns over flooding were rebutted in the final public hearing. And making Artois a population 1300 town –would that be good or bad? It’s hard to tell.

Recognizing that the project was going to be built in a floodplain, the county planning commission required the developer to provide flood protection through levees or fill.

The issue was then: won’t the neighbors get flooded?

An engineering consultant hired by Mr. Orosco reported that if the project was developed according to its recommendations, it “should not adversely affect flooding in the City of Artois [sic],” though “the 100-year flood elevations would be increased by as much as (1/4 foot) in a 1000-foot reach of Walker Creek downstream of County Road 33."

In other words, the worst flood every hundred years would be about three inches worse, for about a thousand feet of Walker Creek.

That hundred-year flood would be eight inches above the minimum road elevation, but planner Christy Leighton said that wouldn’t be a problem.

“Some water would flow back into the development,” she wrote. “But the flow can be prevented with a berm, which the developer promised to incorporate.”

In the hearing, advantage goes to the developer, who said that he already planned to rip-rap Walker Creek to avoid the problem.

Meanwhile, opponents’ lawyer Ken Hopkins looked rather foolish, charging that the plan didn’t show Mr. Orosco’s proposal, only to be rebutted by county engineer Tom Landon and admitting that he hadn’t read that part.

Then-and-now supervisor Keith Hansen recalls flooding being the primary concern – a memory not supported by the transcripts of the main hearing, in which supervisors focus at length on irrelevant concerns.

“If it flooded there, then the rest of the county would be paying for it,” Mr. Hansen says.

He recalls an incident when Highway 99 was covered with a foot of water.

“In response to a highway flooding, you call out the road department, the sheriffs. You don’t want to plan a facility” that will cause those sorts of impacts.

The project would have generated about $175,000 annually in property taxes, about $420,000 today and around one percent of the county’s budget. There’s no record of discussion on whether that money could offset possible effects like flooding.

The other relevant issue – what exactly the extra 1100 people would mean for – or do to – Artois was inconclusive. Still, at least one supervisor voted on that issue.

"There is little doubt that the proposed park will affect the social qualities of the Artois area,” planning director Ed Howard wrote to supervisors after the conflict-of-interest scandal broke.

“The growth-inducing impact on the Artois area will be significant and Artois may lose some of its "small town" characteristics. The mobile home park along will probably not bring additional people to the County, but will tend to concentrate some of the natural growth in one small area.”

But planner Ms. Leighton wasn’t overly concerned.

"Some of the existing neighborhood commercial areas in Artois could be developed or redeveloped,” she said, noting that “seventy years ago there was extensive commercial development in Artois.”

How much people were concerned is up for debate. Certainly, those opposed were vocal about it. Later Journal articles note their opposition. But an earlier Journal article notes the rather different flavor of a September 1980 town hall meeting in Artois:

“‘Let’s get the show on the road and get the little town of Artois back on the map.’

“That remark, made by Artois resident Frank Sousa, seemed to sum up the majority of comments made by Artois citizens” on the proposed park.

Western Modular Company circulated a petition in favor of the project that, they write in an accompanying document, garnered 75 signatures.

Today, Mr. Hansen says he “doesn’t recall” Artois people mad.

But to supervisor Jean Rumiano then, expressed concerns were essential.

“I find it very difficult to say, ‘Yes, I want to make Artois a big place,’” Ms. Rumiano said. “I have a hard time in my own conscience trying to come to terms with 426 units in a community the size of Artois.”

It was on that conviction, she said, that drove her to make a motion to block the development.

The armchair quarterbacking

But most of the issues supervisors raised were mere armchair quarterbacking.

That is, minding the developer’s business, instead of the county’s business.

What makes a legitimate concern?

“Pointing to something site-specific,” Mr. Sprague says. He gives examples: if sewer systems are insufficient and “you can’t guarantee the toilets will flush, or it will have adverse affect on an intersection, or it won’t have fire protection.”

What isn’t germane to a project’s approval or reject, Mr. Sprague says, are numerous miscellaneous details. A planning commissioner that doesn’t like the floor plans, or interest rates, or trying to do social engineering – going above zoning in imposing a personal vision on the county.

We read Mr. Sprague the supervisors’ quotes below, without naming names; his responses are in italics.

In the meeting that killed the park, then-district 4 supervisor Jean Rumiano aired at length two complaints. She represented neither as an overriding concern.

First, she said, there was no demand for mobile home parks. Moreover, after a calculation using 16.5 percent interest, she concluded: “what good is a mobile home park if nobody can afford to live there?”

That’s a developer’s concern,” Mr. Sprague says. “16.5 percent interest – you should have reasonable amount of confidence it wasn’t going to be forever. The state of the economy at the time, interest rates, that should be left to the developer.”

Three years before, interest rates had been at eight percent, and four years later, they would be again.

(Ms. Rumiano also briefly mentioned that she “feels better” about this project, because it was not going to be built on class I soils.

That’s a strange worry: putting the numbers in perspective, the project would create homes for 3 percent of the county’s population, by using 0.05 percent of the county’s farmland. Perspective, anyone?)

But while Ms. Rumiano seemed to think herself better able to judge the needs of mobile home residents than the developer, district 3 supervisor Fred Pride extended his area of expertise to the entire county housing market.

Before seconding Ms. Rumiano’s motion, Mr. Pride commented:

“In regard to a no project, I don’t feel that this project best serves the needs of our community. The overall future general housing needs of Glenn County might be best constructed in locations and in such manner as to better serve specific needs.”

That’s a real good example of someone doing the social engineering. That should be up to the developer.”

Moreover, Mr. Sprague says, it’s just an opinion.

If they can provide numbers that show no mobile homes, there are four mobile home parks within three miles, with 60 percent vacancies” – that would be a different thing.

I would say, Mr. Supervisor, you have to show me your facts and figures,” Mr. Sprague says. “Otherwise you’re just saying, ‘I don’t feel.’ ‘Statistics show’ or ‘history shows’ – but ‘I feel’?”

Mr. Supervisor, I don’t give a shit about how you feel. Forgive the expression.”

District 1 Supervisor Stephen Blacet followed Ms. Rumiano in divining the desires of potential residents, while also seeming to appoint himself county transportation commissioner.

‘The idea of a project is good,” Mr. Blacet began, making his only remarks in the hearing. (He spoke for less than a page, in a 55 page transcript of the discussion.)

But: “It is a fact that we are going to have to start and bring up the future of transportation in this County; I can see that this problem is getting bigger. There will be more demand. I only wish it were closer to a large city, either Orland or Willows.

“The use of the gasoline alone, energy, going nearly seven miles from Orland, probably the same distance from Willows every time anyone goes out, that is extra energy being used. The police and fire protection would be better, if they were closer to a big city.”

There’s a prime example of someone with a particular agenda,” says Mr. Sprague. “Someone’s concerned about energy conservation. That’s an opinion that they’re hanging their hat on, as opposed to a fact like ‘we need a traffic light.’ Distance concerns, fuel concerns – that’s not a germane argument.”

Immediately thereafter, he voted to deny the project – solely, it appears, on worries over how much residents would have paid for gas.

A detail that they would presumably be aware of when moving in. Especially because potential buyers, planning director Ed Howard said, would mostly be county residents – and thus familiar with the area.

And GlennRide started in xxxxx.

Mr. Hansen recalls a another points of concern, on which his memory seems to err: whether the county would have been stuck with a bill if the project folded.

“If we would have built it and the housing market would have changed, would we have had a lot of empty trailers?” Mr. Hansen asks. “Maybe we would have.”

At the time, asked what would happen if the development didn’t pan out, he took a more positive tack: “Well, you are going to have an awful lot of recreation facilities for nothing.”

And when asked why supervisors denied the project, Mr. Hansen doesn’t repeat any of the above reasons. He recalls the main problem at the time being flooding.

Other supervisors too, or just him?

Others were concerned “for the same reason,” he says. “Flooding and everything.”

That’s a legitimate concern,” Mr. Sprague comments, his voice rising as if he’s finally found a needle in a haystack.

Still, at least when examining the transcript, supervisors’ votes seemed to have been driven by far, far less relevant matters. Even Mr. Hansen: he was involved in the flooding discussion, but didn’t mention it in his conclusion before voting.

In fact, his concluding speech was all positive things about the project, and the developer. Mr. Hansen said only two things to the contrary: “I have to agree with all Jean (Rumiano) said” and his conclusion:

And the killer:

“I will not approve myself a 450 unit project, I would agree with a smaller project in that area, because I think that a smaller unit would then satisfy our needs in the county and that’s what we should be looking for, what is best for the county.”

That’s happened to him before, Mr. Sprague says. If current zoning allows 6 units to the acre, and he presents a project that has 5.5 to the acre, “so many times, you’ll still get an official that says, ‘That’s still too dense to me, I’d go with it, I’d go for 4 to the acre.’ And now, because of your own opinion, you’ve changed the threshold. They’re throwing in their opinion and an element of social engineering.”

...and the unfulfilled promise

Mr. Hansen preferred a 100 or 150-unit proposal.

“There is a need,” he said. “If we turn down this project, we have an obligation to develop alternatives.”

That didn’t happen. For one thing, less than 100 mobile homes were built total in the next five years in the entire county. Planning records from that time period show only 72 mobile home constructions in county limits.

(That doesn’t include inside city limits, but there has never been a mobile home park in Willows, and only 52 mobile home spaces exist inside today inside 1981 Orland city limits, making it unlikely 28 were built in a five-year period.)

And when the developer went along with Mr. Hansen’s suggestion, the developer and came back with a new project, the supervisors weren’t exactly jumping to make his life easier. He asked to use the environmental impact report from the bigger project, figuring any impact from a smaller project would be, well, smaller.

(The developer wasn’t happy about the smaller size, saying scale was essential to the project. The larger project would have included a community center with fenced pool, billiard room, card room, and conference room.)

But the supervisors denied this request too.

That, at least, wasn’t Mr. Hansen’s fault: he voted for Mr. Orosco’s request, so the pro-development side went down 2-3 instead of 1-4.

Western Modular’s frustration was obvious; it would soon bubble over into a lawsuit.

“During the 10 month period our application has been before the county, our opponents, including their attorney Mr. Kenneth M. Hopkins, have continually argued that the development should only be approved in a "scaled-down" version,” they wrote in their request.

And then when they asked to build the scaled-down project, the board wanted them to do extra leg work.

Mr. Hansen remembers the need for mobile housing today, as well.

“I did feel that we did need it at the time.”

“If we had built it, and the housing market would have changed, would we have had a lot of empty trailers? Maybe we would have had.”

That would be a bad thing, he opines.

The lone dissenter

Chairman George Edwards was the holdout, pleading unsuccessfully to his colleagues and to the packed supervisors’ chambers.

“There are certain things we would like to have happen. As Keith (Hansen) said, it would be nice if there were a smaller park. But you also have to remember that you have to have somebody who is willing to come in and do the developing. But we have to have someone willing to do it.”

In the end, he was on the short side of a 4-1 vote.

The shady scheme

The Artois mobile home project has gone down in local planning lore – for an unfortunate reason.

For his semi-shady dealings, planning director Ed Howard was fined $6,000 by the state Fair Political Practices Commission and subsequently resigned at a closed session of the board of supervisors.

In 1979, Mr. Howard paid $10 for an option to purchase 121 acres of land adjacent to Interstate 5 near Artois.

On March 14, 1980, he traded that option exchange for a one-third share of the land, purchased by William and John G. Baker for $125,000, and on April 14, the trio signed a purchase contract to sell the property to Mr. Orosco for $525,000, contingent on the latter obtaining the necessary permits.

On May 21, Western Modular applied for a use permit for the mobile home park.

To avoid conflict of interest charges, on May 29, Mr. Howard formally transferred his share in the property to the Bakers, who on the same day transferred the entire property to Mr. Orosco.

"Mr. Howard realized in excess of $133,000 in profit on his investment of less than $42,000 in fewer than 90 days,” charged Willows lawyer Ken Hopkins, hired by local opponents to fight the park.

But Ed Howard took an active role in the planning process until – and didn’t shut up after – his financial dealings were uncovered.

He maintained that the deal was done, and he had no financial stake in the projects’ success, calling allegations against him a “witch hunt.”

He concluded one document written after the news broke: "by making this recommendation for approval, I am sincerely stating my beliefs as a professional planner...I have no financial or personal interest in the project."

Recalling the incident, a heavy note of annoyance comes into Mr. Hansen’s voice – as if he’s speaking about a misbehaving child that should have known better.

“I went over to his office three different times,” Mr. Hansen recalls. “Said to him, ‘you’ve got an interest in this.’ But he couldn’t help voicing his opinion. He was so happy he got involved in some sort of a deal.”

The aftermath: a lawsuit

Former county auditor Joe Sites recalls the views of disenchanted former county planning director John Benoit.

“John finally made it clear to me that county planning has nothing to do with planning,” Mr. Sites remembers. “He said it was just to avoid being sued.”

A basic criterion of planning success – but even that failed here.

Not withstanding Mr. Hansen’s complements to Mr. Orosco for his “character and strength” for the months the battle went on, the developer wasn’t happy.

Frustrated with spending $100,000 futilely in the development process, he paid more money to lawyers and sued for a rehearing, claiming the board of supervisors rejected the project capriciously.

Supervisors “made absolutely no findings with respect to (the) use permit application and the factual basis for the denial,” the lawsuit read. “The analytical processes of the board of supervisors are unknown to Petitioner.”

To this, the supervisors “denie(d) generally and specifically, conjunctively and disjunctively, each and every, all and singular, the allegations.”

Legal-speak – got to love it.

A court date was set for May 20, 1982 – over a year after the project was turned down. What happened is unclear; the court files cut off.

The project’s defeat motivated citizens to make sure nothing like that ever happened again.

At a later planning commission hearing, a “triumphant army” of 25 Artois residents marched out of the courthouse across the street to the planning department to request the property’s rezoning, with Helen Mathison collecting $5, $10, and $20 bills to pay for the $250 application fee.

The success of that operation is unknown. Attempts have been made since to develop it; in 1987 county Planning Director Danny Mao tried to get it the area rezoned commercial to encourage highway businesses. But residents again argued flooding.

“The biggest flood zone is between (Highway) 99 and I-5,” Artois resident Bernard Kaiser told Mr. Mao. “You haven’t been there in a long time.”

Today, the property still sits there, growing crops. Mr. Sprague says that for the last three years, it’s been in the hands of a developer. They’re creating a master plan for the area.

It could have been a big plus for the county.

Consider: what impact does the construction of housing for 1100 people have on everyone else?

Secondary effects are purely speculatory: whether more housing would have attracted jobs that didn’t appear, or deterred construction that did occur, so we’ll disregard them.

But there are direct effects. Simply put: more housing means cheaper rents for everyone.

To measure how much rents would fall, economists have a term called “price elasticity of demand.”

Basically, that means: if supply increases by 1 percent, by what percent does price fall? Very conservatively, we’ll estimate that figure as 0.75 percent for Glenn County.

(You can read more about how we got that figure in the story, “What does new housing do?” on page ***give a page number*****)

457 houses would be 4.28 percent of the houses in Glenn County.

4.28 percent times 0.75 is 3.2 percent.

Average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Glenn County was $439 per month in 2006.

Multiplying, 3.2 percent times $458 is $14.09 per month.

So if the Artois mobile home project appeared, ready-built on the land tomorrow, that’s how much the average renter would save.

Once a month. Every month.

It’s good to know the supervisors look out for the Glenn County underclass.

Summary: (box this)
What? An 1100-person mobile home park proposed on a parcel north of Artois.
Who? Proposed by San Jose-based developer James Orosco
When? 1980
So what? If built today, it would lower rents by at least $15 per month for the average one-bedroom apartment in Glenn County.
For: Some local merchants, some Artois residents wanting to put the town back on the map.
Against: Very vocal Artois residents, who wanted the town kept small.
Killed by: Four supervisors: Keith Hansen, Jean Rumiano, Fred Pride, Stephen Blacet.

Killed housing projects yesterday; less cash in your wallet today.

Killed housing projects yesterday; less cash in your wallet today.
By Sam Bhagwat
of the Valley Mirror
What does new housing do for Glenn County?
Well, a few things.
First, says Glenn County Title’s Rick Thomas, people often look at trying to attract commercial development, ignoring the necessary housing backbone.
“You’ve got to have rooftops to support businesses,” he said.
Problem is, it’s night on impossible to figure out what extra commercial development would have come here if only housing project X was built.
A few times, it has become an issue. In 1978, when a coal plant in Clark’s Valley was proposed, one main objection was the lack of housing for people who would come here to build it – 1,600 during peak construction season.
That would increase the population of Orland and Willows by 20 to 25 percent, planners then worried.
Second, new housing reduces rents. More places to live, so the price of living is cheaper.
Third, other new housing is less likely to be constructed, because housing project X is already helping satisfy demand.
One is a positive effect on the economy. Three is a negative effect. Even if we wave our hands and assume they cancel out, we are still left with two, a positive effect.
So, how much will rents go down?
Economists have a term called price elasticity of demand.
It measures: if widget prices go up one percent, then how many fewer widgets will people buy? Half a percent less? One percent fewer? Two percent less?
A good is more elastic the more people react to price – the more they stop buying widgets, in this case.
So with elastic goods, when price changes a little, consumption changes a lot.
With inelastic goods, in contrast, consumption only changes a little when price changes a lot.
Let’s take an example. A mobile home park proposed in 1982 near Artois would have housed 1,100 people. That would be 4 to 5 percent of the county population.
Several hours spent by this Stanford econ major perusing the academic literature on the matter reveals an array of material.
First, there is no local number. The state association of realtors don’t calculate it; the planning department doesn’t. Chico State urban economics professor Fredericka Shockley said the best bet was probably just to use a number found in the literature for 1975 Sacramento.
That number is from a 1979 study, conducted at the same time as most of the research on this subject – about 30 years.
Third, a variety of numbers were given in such papers, from around 1 to about 0.33, for urban areas.
That is, when the amount of housing increases by one percent, it will decrease prices from somewhere between one and three percent.
Then-planning director Ed Howard said at the time that the project “will probably not bring additional people to the county.”
And Dr. Shockley notes that there are more usually alternatives in urban areas than rural ones.
Each statement indicates that local housing is more inelastic than elastic, which would indicate that the true figure is closer to three percent than one.
Still, we’ll be conservative and say one percent. No, more conservative than that, say three-quarters of a percent.
Four hundred and fifty-seven houses would be a 4.28 percent increase in today’s housing stock.
Which would mean a 3.21 percent decrease in prices, and rents by extension.
The median rent for one-bedroom apartments was in $439 in 2006, according to online data.
Multiplying those two numbers (0.0321 x $439), every one-bedroom apartment renter in Glenn County could take home, very conservatively, $14.09 extra each month, if the Artois mobile home park appeared on the parcel of land today.
And more for renters and recent buyers with families.
That’s why development history matters, by the way.

We’re going to use the figure of rents going down 0.75 percent for every one percent of additional housing for the rest of this series. Keep in mind that though it’s only an educated guess, it’s a pretty conservative one.