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Sonoma County has built its way into major problems, prime among them being too much traffic and too little housing. The question now is whether we can build our way out of those problems.

In the latter part of the last century, two new cities sprang to life here. Rohnert Park was incorporated in 1962. Thirty years later, in 1992, the town of Windsor came into existence. The creation of both cities was fueled by the desire to create housing, to centralize development and to preserve the rural character of outlying lands.

During that same period, the city of Santa Rosa expanded significantly to the north and east, directly into well-worn fire paths. The rationale, particularly for Fountaingrove, was the development of housing for a new generation of professionals. Skyhawk was touted as a middle class development.

What this “managed” growth produced was more people and more congestion. Some may be comforted that the growth also gave us a new hospital, more fine doctors, some fancy restaurants, multiple entertainment venues, a world-class golf course and two casinos. But none of that growth slowed the rise of housing prices, and now the civic-minded are decrying a lack of affordable housing.

It is heartbreaking to see families, and particularly kids, without a decent place to live. But will building 30,000 affordable housing units, as county economic experts urge, alleviate our problems, or will it exacerbate them?

The buzzword in politics, business and agriculture the last few years has been “sustainable.” Only the agriculture sector seems to have a definition and a concept for implementation. By no definition is an economy based on continual and escalating growth “sustainable.” Paying lip service to the idea, while reflexively pushing development, creates short-term gain at the cost of long-term pain.

Current policymaking often looks like a series of ad hoc, politically driven and unconnected decisions. For example, the Board of Supervisors has permitted hundreds of vacation rental units, thereby removing those potentially affordable rental units from the housing stock. The board has continued to approve new wineries over neighborhood opposition and is now considering another huge “event center.” Meanwhile, we have yet to complete the tax-financed freeway and rail line that were supposed to cope with our existing commute nightmare.

The solutions being proposed include loosening the standards that have previously limited garage conversions, second units and other “alternative” housing. Relaxing building and environmental standards may provide short-term relief, but it also will create more congestion, denigrate our rural and agricultural backdrop, increase the need for service personnel in all levels and professions and, ultimately, propel the demand for “affordable” housing to even greater levels.

I recently asked an acknowledged housing expert if she could cite an example of a California community that has established a sustainable equilibrium between employment, housing and infrastructure. She could not and acknowledged that none exists.

Somebody needs to start thinking about true economic sustainability in this community. Academics have addressed the issue for years and have formulated a classic definition of “sustainable development” as, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The present rush to build will satisfy that definition only if our future generations redefine their needs, temper their aspirations and lower their expectations.

Voters will be more receptive to necessary short-term housing solutions if they see serious policy initiatives that challenge the crisis-inducing insistence on perpetual growth. Maybe the defeat of Santa Rosa’s housing bond will trigger deeper thinking on this issue.

Patrick W. Emery has practiced law in Sonoma County since 1974. He lives in Santa Rosa.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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