Before you vote, think about growth — all of it

Sunday, April 1, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:25 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008
Kennedy is a professor emeritus at the MU School of Journalism.

As I write, the botanist and I are winding up an extended spring break in southeastern Arizona. We’ve had a chance to see, along with the birds and the cacti, the impact of poorly planned population growth on an environment even more fragile than ours in central Missouri.

We’ve also observed the near-futility of trying to plan and protect once the sprawl has spread. And we’ve seen something of the costs — monetary, societal and environmental.

I mention all that not merely to make you, especially you birders, jealous, but because at least some of what we’ve seen may be relevant to the big decisions voters will be making in Tuesday’s election. Both local ballot issues — the $60 million school bond and the library tax — are direct products of Columbia and Boone County growth. The successful candidates for City Council and School Board will carry the burden of coping with and planning for growth.

Life here in the desert Southwest has always been a dicey proposition for humans, other animals and plants. The summers are hellishly hot, the winters can be cold, and there’s seldom enough water, except when there’s too much.

Still, people have been here for at least 13,000 years. And more are coming every year. Arizona last year reclaimed from Nevada the title of fastest-growing state.

We see the results every time we venture out of our rented home-away-from-home. Sierra Vista, where we’ve been living, is less a city than a collection of strip malls and subdivisions. Tucson, 60 miles away, used to be a Columbia-sized college town. Now it has a million people. In both, traffic is choked, schools are crowded, taxes are high.

The other day, another geezer and I took a stroll along a trail high above this valley. We saw, surrounding the sprawl, land covered with low-growing mesquite and, in the distance, a narrow strip of green that marks the dying San Pedro River.

When Coronado entered the valley in 1540, one of his men recorded that it was covered by grass as high as a man on horseback. The river was more like a slow-flowing marsh, with beaver-built pools all along it.

Today, after centuries of over-grazing and with the water table drawn down, mesquite has largely replaced the native bunch grass. Today, the river is what we’d call a medium-sized creek in Missouri, and although it has been designated a “riparian national conservation area,” nobody I’ve talked to is optimistic about its prospects.

A Tucson newspaper reported a couple of weeks ago that its City Council was about to raise, for the third time in four years, the impact fees for new homes. The new fee, intended just to cover added costs for police and fire protection, brings the total impact fees in the city to $8,727 per new house. In some nearby jurisdictions, the fees are above $13,000 per new house. And the growth continues.

See you at the polls on Tuesday.

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