Politics Are Local
by Steve Sailer
UPI, June 13, 2001
This is third in a three part series on the appeal of environmental restrictions to affluent homeowners:
"Please let me finish. I am an old lady with white hair," said the distinguished-looking woman with a dignified smile as her neighbors tried to heckle her into surrendering the podium.
When order at the Los Angeles City Planning Commission meeting on Monday was restored, she went on speaking about her church work to the hostile, overflowing crowd of 200 homeowners from her affluent Studio City neighborhood. This Los Angeles suburb with the only-in-L.A. name is home to many screenwriters and character actors who can't quite afford to live in Beverly Hills, which lies just to the south. A 2,000-square-foot home costs in the half-million dollar range.
The speaker described how she traveled throughout Southern California helping elderly members of her church find the right assisted care living facilities when they had become too old to look after themselves. "There is a tremendous need for senior housing in this area," she noted, pointing out that more than 20 percent of Studio City residents were now over age 60.
But when she concluded by calling for approval of a plan to build an old-folks home on a corner of the Studio City Golf and Tennis club, a bitter chorus of booing washed over her. "Save the golf course!" shouted several local homeowners. "No zoning change without an environmental impact report," cried another.
This fervent struggle to "save" a golf course in the name of the environment was ironic but illuminating. It was ironic because across California and the nation, the same kind of environmentally conscious homeowners routinely assemble to try to block the construction of new golf courses. Golf architect Todd Eckenrode of Newport Beach, Calif., told me that he has courses still on the drawing board after eight or even 12 years of the developers struggling to obtain permits from all the regulatory agencies.
In fact, in the last installment of this series on the appeal of environmental restrictions to affluent homeowners, I recounted the tortuous history of the Ocean Trails golf and housing complex on the Pacific coast in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. It is still not quite finished, 30 years after the Zuckerman family, a Southern California home-building dynasty, first proposed development of their property.
These fervent environmental objections to both building golf courses and building over them suggest that attitudes toward golf are not the real issue. These are actually battles over what economists call the spillover from private property ownership.
At the national level, Republican politicians such as President George W. Bush often seem to favor protecting property rights over protecting the environment. Yet, this stance sometimes alienates the wealthy homeowners who normally would be a core constituency for a conservative party. What the conservative ideologists of property rights frequently fail to grasp is how useful environmental rules can be to upper-middle-class homeowners at the local level.
Laws requiring endless environmental impact reviews and protection of endangered species -- even uncuddly ones such as the thorny little San Fernando Valley Spineflower, which is holding up a huge golf and housing project northwest of LA. -- can be wielded by owners of existing homes to prevent construction of new homes. People who already own a nice house often feel that the building of more houses would just worsen traffic and reduce the scarcity value of their own property.
Consider Homeplace Retirement Communities' plan to build a 240-unit complex of assisted living apartments on about a quarter of the 17-acre for-profit Studio City Golf and Tennis facility. The golf course's 50-year lease will be up in 2005.
One protestor described the Studio City golf course as a "a precious gem in a sea of asphalt." It's certainly an attractive nine hole, par-3 golf course, with lovely trees. It's ideal for kids learning the game, casual players, and the elderly. The driving range is a home away from home for the occasional celebrity like Will Smith (back when he was merely the "Fresh Prince of Bel Air") and George Wendt ("Cheers"), plus a lot of vaguely familiar faces of less famous entertainers and retired athletes.
Yet, the golf course itself would be largely untouched by the old folks home. One hole would be wiped out, so a new hole would be built on part of the driving range. Twelve of the 20 tennis courts would disappear. Along with making some other concessions, the new owners would then simply give the remaining land to the city to maintain as a municipal recreation facility forever.
One Studio City resident, a TV writer whose credits go back to "The Mod Squad," told me he'd opposed the development from the beginning because it would generate even more traffic in a community that is now far more densely populated than when he moved in several decades ago. While people who are too old to live alone tend to drive less and less, the facility would require three shifts per day of staff. Parking spaces for 482 cars (390 of them underground) are planned.
The conservative faithful often despair about a lack of ideological commitment to protection of property rights among the well-to-do. But what voters are quite often doing is voting to protect their own property, not property rights in the abstract. Conservative voters often like conservationism because it helps them conserve their property values. This leads them to be flexible in their views on laissez-faire vs. the environment.
For example, Ken and Bob Zuckerman decided to assume that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service would eventually declare, despite strong evidence to the contrary, that the Gnatcatcher bird found on their Ocean Trails property was an endangered species.
So, to avoid getting involved in court battles, they went to various environmental agencies and struck deals. This ultimately required them to set aside, unused, 105 of their 260 acres. Because they are asking about $1 million per acre for home sites, that was a rather large sacrifice (what economists call an "opportunity cost") they had to make for the birds.
Currently, about 20 Gnatcatchers are nesting on their land. While property owners normally charge tenants for rent, this calculation suggest that in this case the government is charging the owners around $5 million per bird they are hosting.
What's interesting, however, is that the Zuckermans father may well have introduced the concept "Keep California Green" to the state's voters. This was way back in the early 1960s during his successful effort to save his own country club.
A new law at the time required assessing property taxes on the basis of a private golf club's "best and highest use," in other words, what the land would fetch if the golf course was plowed under and covered with houses or even skyscrapers. This would have wiped off the map the famous golf courses of Los Angeles, such as the L.A. Country Club, which owns close to a mile of frontage on both sides of Wilshire Blvd., just west of Rodeo Drive.
Ed Zuckerman, patriarch of this family of homebuilders, was a founding member of Brentwood C.C. To save his home fairways from being turned into housing, he organized a state-wide initiative drive to tax golf courses as open space, not potential high-density property. He persuaded comedian Bob Hope to become chairman of the "Keep California Green" committee. Their initiative passed. So, Brentwood and the other great urban country clubs of California, such as Riviera in Pacific Palisades and Olympic in San Francisco, survived.
The late Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill used to say, "All politics is local." That's exaggerated, of course. Still, Republicans should not be surprised when homeowners support in Washington an environmentalist movement that benefits them in their own neighborhoods.