ESSAY- Slow down! Asking questions to map our future

Who are you to decide how many children God will give you?   

That was the prevailing attitude in the United States well into the 20th century. Contraceptives– even information about contraception– was labeled as pornography and outlawed in the US until 1936, when Margaret Sanger's successful legal challenge overturned the law.

You weren't supposed to plan your family. It wasn't up to human beings to determine the appropriate number of offspring to produce. And if you didn't have the resources to feed another child, well, tough luck. A woman has a conjugal duty to serve her husband, and must welcome any and all pregnancies, even if the burden of more children would deprive or harm the family.

Don't ask questions. That's the way it is.

In 21st century America– right here in Charlottesville and Albemarle County– we have ourselves a controversy that's a lot like the old family-planning prohibition.  

The new "Who are you to decide?" attitude is aimed at those would dare ask the question: How many people can relocate to Charlottesville-Albemarle and still allow us to maintain the character of the place?

Until now, growth in this community was seen as a force of nature, no more controllable than the weather. We were supposed to make room for all comers, even if doing so degraded our environment and raised our property taxes. 

But then a few years ago an organization of upstarts arose: ASAP– Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population– founded by long-time local residents including Jack Marshall, Francis Fife, and Rich Collins. (Full disclosure: I'm on the ASAP Advisory Council.)

They had the audacity to ask, "How much growth can this area support?" and to wonder what the effect will be on our roads, our water supply, our air quality, our property taxes, and our quality of life, as more and more people pour into Albemarle County.

A few months ago, ASAP received funding for several studies to help answer their question. The money comes from Pittsburgh's Colcom Foundation, as well as Charlottesville's City Council, the Albemarle Board of Supervisors, and contributions from ASAP members. The studies will be conducted by researchers in the area and around the country.

The reaction to the question– and to the public funding that will be used to arrive at an answer– has been passionate and polarized. ASAP's members, who number in the hundreds, are eager to support the preservation of what Thomas Jefferson termed the "Eden of the United States."

From the other end of the spectrum, people have written letters to the editor and called local radio talk shows to accuse ASAPers of "slamming the gate behind them" now that they've arrived, and trying to stop anyone else from moving here.

That's a lot like anti-contraception people saying that those in favor of birth control want to prevent all future births, when we just want to plan ahead and ask ourselves, "How many is enough?" Once we arrive at a rough number, we can decide, as a community, what to do about it.

That's what we're doing already, on a small scale, when we zone a parcel of land. If it's zoned commercial, then nobody can live there. If a parcel is zoned to allow, say, 100 homes, that means we're "slamming the gate" on the 101st family that would like to live in that neighborhood. 

(All that really means is that the 101st family would have to wait for a house to come on the market in order to relocate to that neighborhood.)

I know what you're thinking: if the supply of dwellings is limited, won't that drive up prices and drive out anyone who needs affordable housing? As it stands now, in spite of the fact that the housing supply is growing, gaspingly high prices are driving low- and middle-income people out of the area.

Low-income housing doesn't spring up naturally in a desirable area like ours. It's a matter of public policy, of deciding together that we want this and making it happen, rather than hoping that a developer will say, "Hm, I think I'll minimize my profits by building affordable housing for low-income folks."

ASAP is merely asking us to pull back and look at the larger, long-term picture. Surely we can agree that it's better to say, "What should we do?" today, rather than lament, "What have we done?" a few decades from now.

It's not as though growth will go on forever if we don't intervene. There are three likely ways that growth will end:

We reach the limit of available water, land, or some other resource. 

This place becomes so crowded and ugly that potential newcomers with a lick of sense will avoid it.

Or, we can be grownups about it and plan ahead to limit growth. (Imagine that! First family planning, and now community planning.) 

Just as we now know where babies come from and how to prevent a pregnancy, we also know where traffic jams and pollution and suburban sprawl come from: they arise from a great many people inhabiting a limited space.  

That's not the way it has to be. So, let's ask questions– and plan ahead.