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« Blogging and Economics | Main | Archaic Football »

December 04, 2006

Houses: On Hills or Flats?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

In rapidly-populating agricultural areas, which should get top priority: housing or farming?

This can be a local election issue (indirectly via candidates for office or directly via propositions or initiatives) or a matter for current officeholders or planning staffs.

I'm writing this in an agricultural area of California that could be in line for massive population growth.

From what I gather, many locals are upset about the prospect of the excellent agricultural land in the valley being turned into housing subdivisions. I also gather that many locals (perhaps a lot of the same ones) become furious when they see large, new houses sprouting on the sides and tops of oak-covered hills.

Let me toss out some ideas. You can pile on in Comments.

The restriction here is that housing growth is assumed to be inevitable -- turning the clock back to the days of Father Serra (or before) isn't allowed in this playpen.

I suppose diehard markets-uber-alles types might argue that a kind of stability will occur when enough farmland is depleted that remaining agricultural land will become too valuable for housing.

Efficiency-oriented observers could contend that it's cheaper to build housing on flat land, so the greatest good will be obtained if developers and individuals avoided hill locations.

Marginal farmers wanting to cash-out also would favor building on the flats.

So might aesthetically-inclined folks who cringe at the sight of housing on those lovely hills.

But.

Is that really the way to go?

Once upon a time and place, people tended to live on hills.

I'm thinking of Korea, much of which is mountainous. I often saw villages positioned on the lower slopes of hillsides, freeing as much flat land as possible for agriculture. (Remaining agricultural land was in the form of terraces on those same or nearby hillsides.)

Then there are the hill-towns of Italy. Again, flatter terrain could be reserved for agriculture though hills also have the advantage of being easier to defend than flatlands -- a double benefit.

So, even though it sez over on the panel to the left that I'm an arts buff, I find the idea of putting as much housing as possible on hillsides appealing despite aesthetic disadvantages. A good case can be made for keeping hill tops dwelling-free, restricting building to lower-to-middle slopes. Flat land might be restricted to industry and retail commerce where hillside locations are impractical.

If nothing else, my "solution" would help defuse the "versus" problem spelled out in the first sentence, above.

Glad to be of service.

Later,

Donald

posted by Donald at December 4, 2006




Comments

The problem, at least in my part of Southern California, with building on slopes is the ever-present danger of mudslides. Because long stretches of the year see no rainfall, while the winter months feature concentrated periods of rainfall, the vegetation on these slopes doesn't develop root systems that would hold the soil in place. Plus the soil here is clay-y mixture that quickly becomes saturated during those years with heavy rainfall. Hence, unstable soil and mudslides.

Then there are environmental problems with building on slopes associated with runoff and water contamination. Plus the added expense of terracing, adding to the already-exorbitant costs of development and construction in SoCal.

All in all, a problematic solution.

Posted by: Steve on December 4, 2006 4:42 PM



Aesthetic disadvantages of building on hillsides?
On the contrary, it's more aesthetically appeLing.
I'd rather live on the hillside, with a wonderful view of the landscape below, maybe a balcony or a terrace, and interesting house floor plans than on the flatland, with a view of the neighbor's fence.
And it's more practical, waterproofing-wise.

Posted by: Tat on December 4, 2006 5:14 PM



Put the beautiful housing on the hillside, where we can all see and enjoy it. Stick the ugly stuff on the plain.

Posted by: dearieme on December 4, 2006 5:39 PM



Doesn't everyone want to live in the hills?
Who wants to live on the flats?
Yuck!

Posted by: ricpic on December 4, 2006 5:45 PM



Sure, everyone wants to live in the mountains, but it costs, literally, millions of $$, at least in the desert. Desert dwellers call the mountains "sky islands" in part because they're as valuable as water-ringed islands.

A tinge of social distinction exists between mountain and valley dwellers, but in my mind, its pretension. Or income. Sadly, income is often a proxy for social class.

I'd like to note that in water-conservation districts, when farms are converted to homes water is saved. On reasonably-sized parcels, the amount of water used by residences per unit area is a fraction of that once used by farmers. So it saves water to build houses on marginal farmland.

Kris

Posted by: Kris on December 4, 2006 10:49 PM



Sure, everyone wants to live in the mountains, but it costs, literally, millions of $$, at least in the desert. Desert dwellers call the mountains "sky islands" in part because they're as valuable as water-ringed islands.

A tinge of social distinction exists between mountain and valley dwellers, but in my mind, its pretension. Or income. Sadly, income is often a proxy for social class.

I'd like to note that in water-conservation districts, when farms are converted to homes water is saved. On reasonably-sized parcels, the amount of water used by residences per unit area is a fraction of that once used by farmers. So it saves water to build houses on marginal farmland.

Kris

Posted by: Kris on December 4, 2006 10:52 PM



No one wants to live on the flats except the ones for whom the flats are an upgrade.

I suspect that this will work itself out the way it always does. I'm still intrigued, though -- what crop is more valuable than housing?

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on December 4, 2006 11:41 PM



Since we're talking about California, what about fires?

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on December 5, 2006 6:17 AM



All planning systems are corrupt. Making rules to restrict housing to the undesired flatlands wouldn't prevent development on the hills - it would just restrict it to politicians (for whom planning laws are often mysteriously waived) and the mafia. It would also drive up the price of existing houses in the hills to insane levels, producing unearnt windfalls.

I live in a crowded but beautiful area of southern England, which suffers from layer upon layer of planning laws. The towns are packed with tiny ugly houses, but surrounded by villages frozen in time, made up of pretty old houses worth a million pounds or more. These settlements are embedded in unproductive and not very attractive farmland (large prairie-like fields) supported by EU subsidies. Each farm has itself become a mini-development of barn conversions and light industrial units, such development being easier to get permission for.

There has to be a better way, and I think it means reducing the number of planning rules and relaxing constraints - letting the market find the best use and the best price for land.

Posted by: Graham Asher on December 5, 2006 2:54 PM



The mountain sheep are sweeter
But the valley sheep are fatter
We therefore deemed it meeter
To carry off the latter

Any relevance?

Posted by: dearieme on December 5, 2006 4:52 PM



Lots of seismic issues with the hills here. And the oak trees. Here in Santa Barbara County you can't cut down an oak tree you own on land you own without getting a permit. Which they are loath to give at County Planning.

Posted by: Reid Farmer on December 6, 2006 10:59 AM



Dear Don,

Personal brief: I am an aging ex-English TA and independent graphic designer with a career spent in Agriculture. This is my 41st season of tomato inspection. I irregularly visit your site for independent, responsible views on arts and culture. It is great. I have been tempted to write about outsider graphics, but feel compelled to add to the agricultural land use issue. You are spot on defining it as a huge, contentious, defining issue.

Californians argue about the hills vs. valley development issue and your attempt to defuse the polar positions is admirable. But your idea that, “marginal farmers wanting to cash-out also would favor building on the flats” is too simple. In fact retiring farmers on the richest land in this state regularly retire in order to make a final land play.

For example, 40 years ago when I entered the field as a college graduate looking for summer work there were 5000 growers producing 1.5 million tons of tomatoes. Today 250 or so growers produce 10-12 million tons (over 400,000 truckloads.) These growers are huge, successful, savvy businessmen who are aging (as am I). It is difficult for young farmers to take over sophisticated, well-capitalized operations. A retiring grower today is a potential developer tomorrow.

Developers don’t just want “flat” land; they also want soft, fertile, rock-free land that can be carved like pie. They want houses and infrastructure (plumbing, sewer and streets) to go in quick, cheap, easy. Placing developments on vast (flat) areas of marginal flatland (sheep grazing land and other areas with hard pan) is a big (unpalatable) answer.


Kris rightly observes that water is saved when housing replaces farms. But marginal lands have little or no water rights. Wonderful farmland comes with the advantage of lucrative water rights essential for development.

Development begets development. The farmer next to a subdivision is doomed. Teenage boys are more destructive than any other form of wild-life. Increasing road use also drives agriculture away. EX: Every tomato cannery in urban areas has been torn down and replaced with totally computerized operations near small towns in outlying areas. Continual mechanization and computerization do cut energy and boost productivity. These changes in our business model have lead to the collapse of tomato processing throughout the rest of the US. Sophisticated tomato hybrids capable of growing on marginal land in hotter areas are also a key. But developments both create and fill the vacuum, claiming fertile lands near city centers.

Silicon Valley and Orange County (LA) before it were not marginal land. I was taken aback at the comments from people who ignored or didn’t seem to understand the power and size of California for national and world food production. Paving this valley will have worldwide food implications. Farm areas near Sacramento are slated to have a major NASCAR track and a major horseracing track. Our 24-7 harvest cannot just stop when 50,000 people descend on the area. Instead, processing plants move and fertile farms collapse as the surrounding density increases.

Do I want to live splendidly on a hill or economically in the valley, is not the issue. Taken alone, California is the fifth agricultural nation in the world. Fresno county is bigger than 22 other states, and it is a sprawling suburban time bomb.

Sorry that I don’t have better answers or optimism. Remember that land use is a local issue. Statewide initiatives to identify and protect fertile areas are ideal but ineffective. Developments here in the valley fueled by commuters driving 2 hours to and from coastal jobs bring with them voters who elect local supervisors dedicated to annexing the surrounding farmland. And so it goes.

Sorry to be so late with this.

Allan Jones, Dec 14, 2006

Posted by: Allan Jones on December 15, 2006 1:12 PM






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