A Short Walk into the Valley of Death

Recently accused by a local planning commissioner of being a dishonest journalist, I reviewed my notebooks for moral reassurance. I found notes from an interview I once did with a city planning-department staffer in charge of maps. This Galilean fundamentalist believed that satellite enhanced geography was the queen of the sciences and would set us free. I honestly reported this lunacy for the local newspaper.

Our little region of the globe contains three north San Joaquin Valley CA counties in the largest parts of two congressional districts formerly known as Pombozastan in honor of representatives Pombo and Cardoza, of anti-Endangered Species Act fame. The three county seats are tops in the nation for mortgage foreclosures. Three other Central California cities, Sacramento, Fresno and Bakersfield, also score high for mortgage foreclosure rates. These land-use jurisdictions, whose elected officials approved the massive construction boom driven by speculation, are awash in debt and planning maps: county limits, city limits, specific urban development plans, spheres of influence, blueprints, greenprints and regional partnerships.

Years ago, state Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, irritated with local governments in Northern California, advanced an idea to consolidate its 50 counties into conveniently large land-use jurisdictions like the eight counties south of the Tehachapis, which contain the largest population in the state. I don’t remember the speaker’s exact political purpose for this suggestion, but it threatened the livelihoods and power of thousands of county officials, presumably to some positive outcome for the speaker’s agenda at the time. To my knowledge, Brown’s proposal has not returned in his forthright terms, but it has gained momentum by other means.

As anyone knows, whose life has detoured for some reason into the intellectual sump called “land-use planning” in California, the topic is rich in absurdity and cannot be faced, let alone comprehended without deep study of the comic novel and neglected masterpieces of 18th-century Neapolitan social theory. Although the environment constantly deteriorates under the impact of “inevitable growth,” although the resource-carrying capacity of the state is breaking down all around us, although new slogans along the lines of the familiar chestnut “smart growth” are endlessly confected by land-use propagandists – we know we cannot take this sugar-coated bullshit seriously. Down that path lies idiocy, and there are examples all around us of those who have ventured there and not returned.

The area including 15 Central California counties is missing the two maps essential to understanding the true land-use jurisdictions.

Each of the 15 counties has land-use authority over the unincorporated areas within its borders. The cities within them have land-use authority over the areas within their corporate city limits and consultative jurisdiction over areas beyond their limits depending on spheres of influence, specific urban development plans, and other arrangements with their counties. (As a canny realtor/city councilman once put it: “Counties don’t grow; cities do.”)

As official land-use jurisdictions, these counties and their cities are subject to state and federal environmental laws and regulations, particularly the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which defines the state’s unique procedures and requirements for environmental review. Federal laws and regulations define other duties and responsibilities of local land-use jurisdictions. The main federal laws are the Endangered Species Act (ESA), Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act. If the local jurisdictions corrupt these laws too blatantly, their decisions are open to legal challenge.

Local land-use officials do not don sackcloth and sit in ashes when they are defeated in court. Their response to a negative ruling is to ramp up the propaganda attack against successful petitioners, courts, judges and environmental law, approve more projects and sacrifice to golden cows, praying for the extirpation of their enemies – from the San Joaquin Kit Fox to environmental organizations. After a few years of these rustic rites, a stranger arriving in their midst and observing their public behavior must theorize that they were born that way or that the idiocy is environmentally caused.

The executive director of the San Joaquin Valley air board, controlled by pro-growth county supervisors, continues his campaign to convince the public that one of the two worst air quality basins in the nation, facing epidemic growing rates of childhood and elder asthma, has better air quality than it was 25 years ago. The only way to comprehend this is to realize that the San Joaquin Valley Regional Air Quality Board, like city councils and boards of supervisors in its region, has been wholly digested and evacuated by its “regulated community.”

Environmental laws and regulations governing the legal actions of local land-use jurisdictions theoretically obstruct developers in collusion with local officials from doing exactly what they want to do – create a continuous slurb from Chico to Bakersfield on the richest, most productive farm and ranch land in the nation and one of the greatest agricultural treasures in the world, also home to abundant wildlife. They seek to create residential subdivisions to profit while making the region’s air unbreathable, its water unpotable and its wildlife extinct.

There are numerous county and municipal general plans being updated at the moment. The state has mandated general plans since 1927 and has required frequent updates in recent years. The whole Valley is updating general plans that are out of compliance with unenforced state law. General plans are supposed to be made to guide development as if the existing population mattered. They are the main venue in which citizens have any say about what developers and their government enablers have planned for them. “Planning” is an activity conducted in an arcane jargon designed to impress and intimidate the populace. But, at least the jurisdictions covered by the general plans are relatively well marked on maps. Fresno and Merced are currently involved in probably the last county-boundary dispute in the state.

Meanwhile, various forms of regional planning are going on. The seven counties around Sacramento have a regional transportation-planning agency called Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) that ceaselessly generating frosted cow pies for public consumption. Lately, the eight San Joaquin Valley counties have gotten into the business with a state-funded San Joaquin Valley Blueprint Planning Process, led by the Merced County Associations of Governments (MCAG). In addition to our blueprint, we have a special commission, the San Joaquin Valley Partnership, chaired by Stockton’s largest developer.

These parallel planning processes are coordinated in various backrooms and sprung upon the public as a series of “done deals” in which every agenda but protection of the environment is fulfilled. The transportation planning, for example, has one aim: persuading the state Department of Transportation that it should put SACOG or MCAG’s special streets and roads projects at the top of the pile in the annual hogfest of requests to the Federal Highway Administration.

The regional transportation planning process pays as little attention as possible to state and federal environmental law. While the local general plans must at least pretend an interest in the environment, regional transportation planning is motivated by its higher calling – federal highway funds. Thanks to the durable public-private/”win-win” partnership between developers and land-use authorities, housing is built without enough roads to handle the increased traffic (known in planning jargon as “inadequate transportation infrastructure”). Delegations speaking with “One Voice” are regularly dispatched to Congress demanding that the empty barrel of speculation-driven construction be filled with pork.

The CAGs and COGs generate an abundance of beautiful, colored maps. However, the two most important maps are controlled by jurisdictions that do not share.

The official boundaries of the region Formerly-Known-As- Pombozastan are clearly marked. Gerrymandered as they are according to vanities of the two-party system, the 11th and 18th congressional districts will remain the same until after the next US Census in 2010. But Pombozastan was never the most important political jurisdiction in its region.

Extremely conservatively, I date the period of radical growth of the unmapped jurisdiction to the spring of 2005, when Stockton’s largest developer held a fundraiser for representatives RichPAC Pombo and Dennis “Fairy Shrimp Slayer” Cardoza, after which the two congressmen split a reported $50,000. In attendance at the event were no doubt representatives of a Sacramento-based, unmapped political jurisdiction recently stung by defeat at the hands of the Army Corps of Engineers in the US Supreme Court, when the justice from Sacramento recused himself. In the fall of 2005, about the time Pombo and Cardoza introduced their latest bill to gut the ESA, the same Stockton developer was appointed by the Hun, our governor, to co-chair the San Joaquin Valley Partnership. The term “co-chair” is overly modest.

The first great, undrawn map is now being layered over the San Joaquin Valley, for years known as the Territory of the Warring Irrigation Districts. This map is composed of two parts (befitting a partnership), representing a dual monarchy along Austro-Hungarian lines that must appeal to the Hun. In the north, we have a highly organized administrative unit built for growth called GrupeSpanopolis. The southern part of the Partnership, while not quite as well organized (though better monitored by the FBI) is called the Fresno Catastrophe, which contains a vast prison/mega-dairy complex in its southern provinces.

In the Sacramento area, even the 7-county SACOG transportation planning region does not contain Tsakopolis, a perpetually expanding, dynastic development octopus reaching at certain points into the neighboring Partnership. Tsakopolis is also managed along Balkan lines, although it probably owes more to the Ottoman than to the Austro-Hungarian model. The state Capitol is simply one among many gated communities in Tsakopolis.

This is the first layer of undrawn maps. One might say, (following Vico’s New Science) that these are kingdoms of giants, representing, along with many other signals we are receiving, our entrance into a new age of barbarism.

This map is unlikely to be drawn by local land-use jurisdictions because they must deny that the giants have any influence over land-use decisions governed by environmental law and regulation, some of the most popular laws in the state and nation. If even the existence of the kingdoms of the giants were admitted publicly and mapped, it could lead to investigations that might result in criminal prosecutions for mis, mal and non-feasance. This sort of reform could be like something out of the “Progressive Era,” conjured up by the Hun from the dustheap of Republican Party history during the recall election. The Hun conquered a state capitol inside which no trooper can direct a tourist to the portrait of Gov. Hiram Johnson.

A giant, perpetual propaganda campaign sells the idea that our developers are enlightened, benevolent and humble citizens fulfilling the deepest community needs. This campaign is as true as the inevitability of growth, the absolute necessity for the peripheral canal, Sykes and Temperance Flats reservoirs, that Westlands Water District must own San Luis Reservoir, that the quality of Valley air and water is better than it was 25 years ago, that several species of Delta fish are not going extinct, that thousands of acres of habitat for endangered species can be destroyed with impunity and that developers can build mile-long sewer lines through farmland without any legal permits at all. This campaign, fomented by the global information-management firm, Fee, Fai, Foe & Fumm LLP, runs larger campaigns denying global warming, peak oil, the loss of habeas corpus, extinction of the Polar Bear, defeat in Iraq and the global credit crunch.

Like the prehistoric giants they resemble (said to have learned piety from fear of thunder and lightning), someday our giants might come to Jesus via flood, drought or both. But do not tempt your Lord about it. They would earn fabulous profits from reconstruction projects. Every child knows that giants prize gold above all.

But, there is another undrawn map, the only map at the moment of any use to hundreds of thousands of our Valley residents now inhabiting the housing products the giants built. The Great Speculative Housing Boom has Busted and people don’t know who holds their mortgages anymore than the mortgage holders know the people who aren’t paying subprime resets. It would be dishonest journalism to say that I know of a map showing how mortgages in Tsakopolis, GrupeSpanopolis and the Fresno Catastrophe have been bundled and distributed among the hedge funds and banks that do not qualify for discount rates from the Federal Reserve.

BILL HATCH can be reached at: wmmhatch@sbcglobal.net


Bill Hatch lives in the Central Valley in California. He is a member of the Revolutionary Poets Brigade of San Francisco. He can be reached at: billhatch@hotmail.com.