By Brian Wheeler
Monday, October 18, 2010
Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population wants the Charlottesville area to become a model for the rest of the country when it comes to planning how to live within its means.
Jack Marshall, ASAP’s president, says a fundamental change in thinking could lead to a stabilized or even reduced local population. Other local leaders think the group’s approach to limiting population growth is unrealistic.
“We must, if we care about having a sustainable community for our grandchildren, we must consume less and simultaneously we must stabilize our population size or even reduce the population size of our community,” Marshall said.
Robert P. Hodous, a city resident who works with the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce, said population centers around the world taught him a different lesson.
“It’s fascinating to me what these people don’t look at,” Hodous said. “If you take a quick look at the major population centers in Europe, the population density is 10 times what we have here.”
ASAP has completed five separate topical studies intended to help the community identify an optimal population size or range. Marshall, who has led ASAP since its founding in 2002, will present his group’s findings to Charlottesville’s City Council this evening. [See past coverage of: Study #1 and Studies #2-5]
The research has been supported by local taxpayers through investments of $25,000 by the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and $11,000 by the City Council. Additional funding came from ASAP members and a $50,000 grant from the Colcom Foundation of Pittsburgh.
City Councilor David Brown praised ASAP for “pointing out how smart we have to be with our land use planning and resources,” but questioned how realistic it would be to have the city put a cap on population.
“That’s the ultimate ‘not in my back yard’ philosophy,” Brown said. “I am sure every desirable place to live in the country would like to be [limiting its growth].”
“It’s not realistic to turn the clock back,” Brown added. “It reminds me a little bit of trying to limit immigration into this country, and I don’t agree with that.”
One of those studies, ASAP’s Ecological Footprint Analysis, concludes that the Charlottesville-Albemarle area’s biological capacity could sustainably support only 37,000 people at current consumption levels. The community’s combined population today is roughly 135,000, almost 3.7 times what the study says can be supported.
“The major finding was that our ecological footprint is huge, much greater than our community’s 736 square miles can provide for,” Marshall said. “It reveals a significant ecological deficit.”
Neil Williamson, executive director of the Free Enterprise Forum, said that ASAP will be challenged to align this approach with the city’s recent planning efforts.
“I look forward to hearing how City Council responds to ASAP’s call for a reduction in population and how that squares with their goals for economic vitality in the region,” Williamson said. “Government should not be in the population control business.”
Jeff Werner is the local field officer for the Piedmont Environmental Council, a group that advocates for protection of the rural countryside and “smart growth” in designated urban areas.
“Any population — birds, fish, bugs, people — cannot survive if it exceeds the capacity of the resources necessary for life,” Werner said in an interview by e-mail. “However, Virginia does not allow — nor in the foreseeable future will it allow — local land use regulations that permanently establish moratoriums on growth and development.”
“As realists, we need to work with the tools available and, taking into consideration these growth-related impacts, develop planning policies and regulations that will accommodate expected growth while preserving as much as possible the natural resources that communities need,” Werner added.
ASAP says their research at this point is still insufficient to identify a specific optimal population for the community. However, faced with a limited supply of natural resources, Marshall said housing is the key piece of community infrastructure that needs to be limited to reduce demand.
“If we don’t build it, they won’t come,” Marshall said. “We could achieve a realistic stationary population simply by adjusting the development potential in the community by changing the zoning.”
“We have been building it because a minority in the community profits from it in the short term,” Marshall added. “But over the long haul, for generations to come, we will all pay for the costs of this growth.”
Williamson counters that new homes are only built when there is demand.
“We need only look at the most recent new home construction numbers to see that when demand goes down, construction goes down,” Williamson said. “The premise that if we don’t build it they won’t come is false.”
Brown said housing affordability could be negatively impacted by limiting its supply.
“There are limits to how we grow and we have to be smart about doing it, but I don’t think we can solve this region’s problems by limiting housing,” Brown said. “What makes housing affordable is having an adequate supply.”
Other ASAP studies, also researched by local residents, evaluated the impacts of population growth on air quality, forest cover, streams and groundwater.
ASAP’s research project has also received attention from other strategists concerned about global population matters. Joseph Bish, who works with the Population Media Center in Washington, D.C., helped to organize a conference earlier this month where Marshall presented ASAP’s work.
“I think ASAP is the new wave of population and sustainability organizations in the country,” Bish said. “They are taking it down to the local level and are doing a great job raising awareness that communities shouldn’t live beyond their means or natural resources.”
“You can still have prosperity,” Bish added. “ASAP isn’t arguing that Charlottesville and Albemarle shouldn’t be prosperous; there just needs to be an optimal balance.”
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