The Elephant in the Living Room
In Comp Plan parlance, no one wants to talk about the problems that people create. To get around that conversation, everyone uses a placeholder for people: density.
Density refers (in rural areas) to the number of acres “required” for a dwelling unit (du), also called a single family residence (sfr). In San Juan County, the smallest rural density designation is 1 du/5 acres, that is, one “house” in a minimum of 5 acres. By standard agreement, this is the minimum “density” that defines “rural”. If the actual density is “greater” than 1 du/5 acres (such as 1 du/4 acres), then that area is defined as “sprawl”.
To translate a dwelling unit (a house, a residence) into people, the basic average in San Juan County is 2 people per house. Ten houses would then have, on average, 20 people. Ten houses should take up a minimum of 50 acres in a rural part of the county.
Unfortunately, (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), the actual density is not the same as the “zoning” or assigned density. Actual density is based on the average size of legally defined lots, here in San Juan County called Tax Parcels. The zoning map might show an area of 100 acres as zoned R-5, meaning there is supposed to be only 1 du every 5 (or more) acres. The actual density in that 100 acres might be 1 du/3 acres, because many legal lots are smaller than 5 acres. Those lots were “grandfathered” in, i.e., created before there was a comprehensive plan. One problem with “actual density” is that it is “sprawl”, or “suburban”, not “rural”. GMA prohibits sprawl in rural areas. Another problem is that there are, or will be, more people in areas where those who live here, and those who come here, have come to expect more trees and less houses.
Those “new folks” will change the character of “rural” and by their very presence transform it to “suburban”, which is not what they want, nor is it what those who already live here want.
Everyone, for decades, has always wanted to be “the last one in”; everyone wants the drawbridge pulled up just after they arrive.
That “drawbridge”, with all the emotional and financial and carrying capacity and aspirational wishes and sense of being “full” or maybe even being “too full” requires a long, serious and ultimately resolvable conversation.
That conversation should be translated into the Comprehensive Plan. If it doesn’t happen, there will still be a plan. It just might not be what anyone wants.
That density conversation has never happened. Why?
It’s too hot. It’s the elephant in the living room. Everyone knows it is there and no one wants to talk about it.
This is not a snapshot of a family in crisis. This is dynamic. The elephant keeps growing even if the conversation never starts.
More than anything else, you hold the keys to whether that conversation begins. Those keys are whether you choose to demand the conversation, tough as it surely will be.
what is really on the table
San Juan County is, really, simply another county in Washington State; the State is really simply another State in the Nation, and the Nation is simply one of almost 200 nations that dot the globe. We aren't that special. At least yet. The path followed by the county and its citizens has not been thought out. It simply has evolved, like virtually every other place anywhere on Earth. For thousands of years this didn't matter; humans weren't really very impactful on the planet. No drama here.
The story began to change about 200 years ago, and it has accelerated to the point where we are heading like a steam engine straight into a self-created global train wreck. That this evaluation is controversial is unfortunate. Even for those not convinced of human-induced challenges like anthropogenic climate disruption, staggering income inequality, climate refugees, and a predicted mass extinction event, the data about species and habitat loss and overconsumption of resources is pretty chilling. The Bedrock, then, of the challenge before the residents and visitors of the San Juans is to halt at least the one car on the freight train labeled "San Juan County". To disconnect, as it were, from the growth mindset that has entranced almost everyone on the planet. To reimagine a balanced relationship, not a dominant/subordinate relationship, with the Earth, such as described in "A New Vision". This reimagination, when reduced to specific behaviors and conditions, may not seem pretty to many in the developed world, even if it might actually feel refreshing, a kind of relief that the hamster cage can stop spinning. (There are those who would argue that while our world is much easier in terms of human labor required to accomplish tasks, we do not deserve the attribution "developed"). The imaginative dystopia that would arise should we slow, stop or reverse "growth" portrays suffering, restrictions on life-style, restrictions on freedom, major restrictions on consumption. What is missing from most conversations is the imagined dystopia that would arise should we continue Business As Usual. It might look very much the same, or worse.
Those who live and visit here carry complex and often contradictory cultural memes about entitlement, consumption, and refreshment. Preservation of wildness cannot coexist with preservation of patterns of consumption that require growth (of income, people, roads, services, structures, infrastructures, etc.) No one could say the San Juans are entirely wild today. The issue on the table is how much of the remaining wildness are we willing to preserve. The opposite of wild is tame. Tameness does not exist in any other species besides man. Tame is predictable, generally comfortable, and exploitive. Think the difference between a wilderness meadow and a suburban lawn. The meadow is a diverse flexible in perpetuity mixture of flora and fauna requiring zero human intervention (in fact, insisting on it). The lawn is a manicured monoculture maintained often by humongous quantities of water, toxic chemicals and fossil-fuel-consuming machines used to harvest and throw away the crop.
The drama, then, the real story, is about our human willingness to accept boundaries on our instinctual desire for tameness. Recall that 500 years ago, no one in North America owned land. It was inconceivable for the human inhabitants of spaces now called Canada, America and Mexico to imagine that land could be "owned" and there were "property rights" associated with ownership. Those indigenous cultures existed in reasonable harmony with their varied ecosystems for millennia. Today, surveyors can define invisible boundaries representing someone's "property" to the nearest tenth of an inch. Those boundaries mean nothing to robins, earthworms, bacteria, mycelium, eagles, deer, air, water, soil. The challenge before us is to re-connect with that sense of wildness, unpredictability, and sensitivity lest we tame ourselves into physical, moral and mythological extinction.