October 9, 2005

Curbing Growth Through A Water-Hookup Moratorium

For more than three decades, Bolinas, California "has refused to authorize a single new water meter, needed for hooking up to the town water supply," the New York Times reports in quite a fascinating article on an unusual way of controlling growth.

The meters have become so valuable in the town, 20 miles from San Francisco, that one was recently auctioned off for $310,000. That's right, $310,000 just for "the right to hook up to the municipal water supply." Money went to the nonprofit Bolinas Community Land Trust.

The moratorium is a somewhat extreme solution to the basic conundrum faced by communities around San Francisco, New York, Boston and other cities where home prices have cracked the stratosphere: Is there any way to create affordable housing AND maintain a non-urban quality of life when demand for housing so severely exceeds supply?

Home prices in Bolinas are sky-high, even for California, with the cheapest property on the market, at $920,000, a "1,200-square-foot cottage on less than one-fifth of an acre." Meanwhile, there remain just 580 possible hookups to the town water supply.

Critics echo complaints heard in Weston, Wellesley and Lincoln as well - middle-class civil servants like teachers and firefighters cannot possibly afford to live in the communities where they work on their municipal salaries, unless they were lucky enough to have been born there.

"There aren't too many jobs in Bolinas that will let you buy a half a million dollar water meter," artist Dieter Tremp told the Times. But, his wife added, "if there weren't growth controls, this would be just another huge suburb."

Is exclusivity and unaffordability the only way to preserve quality of life in desirable communities that don't want to turn into high-density cities or soul-less, sprawl-plagued suburbs? Perhaps what we need is more smaller community centers with somewhat higher densities and mixed-use, live-work living, so there can also be more satellite communities close to jobs and culture.

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