Life, Liberty and being Left Alone

A typical trope often heard between the explosions of fireworks on July 4th is about the Declaration of Independence and its  hallowing of the rights of the individual over and against excessive government.

In a 2008 article about the death of Edith Macefield, the woman who resisted developer’s attempts to buy her home leaving it surrounded by a Trader Joes and a gym, Knute Berger pays homage to Macefield as a martyr for individualism saying:

People like Edith Macefield who want to live quiet lives and be left alone are now the equivalent of squatters — they occupy space that has a destiny, a “highest and best use” that doesn’t include people who want to live their lives in peace.

Berger elevates Macefield to mythical status, along with the idea that the individual, not the community, is the unit of measurement we should use to judge progress.  Berger suggests that the choice is being more sustainable by building dense and livable city on the one hand, or our individual rights—our freedom—on the other. Berger says,

Steamrollering over [Macefield] is justified by the notion that we’re fulfilling our civic mission to create a denser, more urban city so that we won’t pave all of nature. The Edith Macefield’s are seen as standing in the way of progress.

The lone individual hunkers down in their castle while the communitarian menace surrounds them with condominiums, transit and Trader Joe’s.  Most Seattlites probably wouldn’t identify with libertarians or people who live on acres of land and drive Hummers or own lots of guns.

But for some, individuality still means the right to a single family home, a car and place to park it. It is easy to mythologize these versions of our rights in the gauzy veil of the “good old days,” and dream of a time when there weren’t so many damn people around here. Individual rights can become code in land use debates for favoring convenience over the larger good, the maintenance of the status quo over change.

Seattle still finds itself in the middle of an age old American struggle between our “civic duty” and our desire, as Berger so aptly puts it, to be left the hell alone.

Today we celebrate one of the greatest documents of individualism of all time, the Declaration of Independence. Some would interpret the Declaration as the ultimate “leave me alone” document of the last 300 years, written by colonists wanting to be free of their Big Brother, the British Empire.

As Americans, and Seattlites it can be tempting to see Macefield’s stand as somehow heroic or a kind of martyrdom to individuality in the face of change. But the first words of our written Constitution,  imperfect as it may be, are plural: “We the people.

Digging bunkers in Ballard won’t help us address the pressing environmental and economic problems we face.  We have to tap into that other strain of American idealism represented by figures like John Adams, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster who are often marginalized by our worship of Thomas Jefferson. Clay developed the American System, a comprehensive, government driven expansion of infrastructure that built a transportation system for the United States in its early years.

Individual expression is important, but so is our civic duty to others and we should articulate this aspect of American tradition more clearly in our language when we talk to people about growth and sustainability.  American tradition includes the common cause, and supporting each other in times of change and challenge. Building better cities in our region, funding transit, and planning for sustainable growth will mean thinking big and beyond the principled stand of lone individuals protecting their rights.

This post is adapted from a post than originally ran a few years ago on Great City’s blog.

106 Replies to “Leave Me Alone! Individualism and Sustainability”

  1. Want privacy? Rent an apartment.

    Want people to notice how good or bad you are at landscaping? Buy a house.

  2. Roger, this is one of your best pieces. Our independence was only forged by working together.

    1. Weren’t all the Founding Fathers gentlemen landowners with large farms…from New England to Virginia? Even the most “urban styled” among them like Franklin and Jefferson would be aghast at dwellings whose size is only suitable for raising milk fed veal.

      1. Sure, what with all that free land for the taking–the trail of tears and a few other minor altercations aside–plus discount kinetic energy from slaves to work the land. And who wouldn’t love those triangle trade profits? The slave labor was more or less amicably replaced by the freewheeling depletion of high ERoEI fuel reserves, leading to the modern era of floor-it-business-as-usual exponential growth in the face of a few minor problems (peak water and peak phosphorous come to mind).

        But not to worry! We’ll doubtlessly find a few more Earths to sprawl to and the magical Hydrogen fairy will wed Maxwell’s Daemon and thus solve the liquid fuel problem once and for all and humanity will live happily ever after. The End.

      2. I’m pretty sure that Jefferson was a gentleman farmer, but John Adams was a city guy, along with his cousin and patriot-brewer-rabblerouser Samuel.

      3. John,
        Have you ever been in a historic Colonial-era home? Those things are tiny by modern standards and are quite small even by the standards of pre-WWII 20th Century homes and apartments.

        Yes, some new condos and apartment developments in Seattle are being built with very small studio units. This is because there is a demand for those units. Believe it or not there are people who want to live in the middle of the city but can’t afford a 2500 sq. ft. home or condo there. Sure they might be able to get that kind of space out in Orting for the same price as a small apartment or condo in Belltown but they would then have to deal with the time and expense of a long-distance commute.

        Frankly the new small condo and apartment units being built are really just the modern version of an old SRO hotel. There was demand for such housing “back in the day” and apparently there still is such demand now. Who are you to tell someone they can’t live in a small dwelling that meets their needs?

  3. We need to reframe issues of density in terms of the quality of our built environment. All the suburban landscape easements in the world will not make up for synthetic, prefabricated materials, piss-poor architectural ‘innovations’ and bad, arbitrary urbanism.

    What we need is better development, instructed by the best of our original city fabric, drawing the same timeless principles that have guided building in all of human history up until a couple of generations ago.

    What good is high-tech, computer controlled green building if it’s built to last a generation, costs a fortune to maintain, and is so faddish that it’s dated before construction is even finished?

    Has anyone thought that the lobby of the King County administration building (the reptilian one) and noticed that it feels like an acrid, smoke-stained mausoleum? Imagine its award-winning architects thinking their genius and ‘innovation’ would lauded by future generations . . . progress?!

    Can anyone imagine anything worth loving in city of composed entirely of disposable 4-pack auto-court townhouses, parenthetical suburban public art, and a sea of undefined so-called ‘green-space’. My point is that this is not progress.

    We CAN revive this traditional way of building, preserve the good stuff we already have, and create a beautiful city worthy of our heart-stopping natural environment.

    1. People need to have real revolution and toss out all the density charlatans and hucksters who have stolen the People’s money and turned the formerly most liveable city in America, replete with affordable crime free SFH neighborhoods, into an overly dense nightmare.

      1. John, I hate to break it to you but a majority of the neighborhoods in Seattle are still single family. For that matter you can find single family houses for sale in Seattle for less than $100,000 if you look hard enough.

        That said, I really don’t see what, short of chasing most employers out of the region, any of your anti-density notions will do for affordability. Housing prices are being driven up by population growth. Housing demand tends to push up both density and prices.

        BTW if you think Seattle is becoming an “overly dense nightmare” I strongly suggest you stay away from just about any other large city anywhere in the world. Though I suppose Detroit might fit your vision for the urban pastoral future, but I understand they have a bit of a crime problem there.

    2. This is a tough issue. Modern materials are cheaper and labor much more expensive than in the past. Building with stone and hand-laid brick, despite the potential for intricate and beautiful design, is just plain expensive these days. Not that it wasn’t expensive back when our beautiful 19th centruy buildings were built – there just weren’t other options. How do you convince a developer to spend some large multiple of the regular construction cost in the name of aesthetics? And that’s assuming you can’t find beauty in modern materials – I think there are some stunning modern designs.

      Looking past aesthetics, the other issue you allude to is durability. We build many modern buildings with a lifespan of a few decades – especially on cheap land in the suburbs. Tax incentives and the business cycle make investing in century-length buildings expensive (what CEO benefits from this? what stockholder invests for returns a century later?).

      The exception is civic structures. They do try to design for the long term, though don’t often have money for aesthetics. That King County building, though not pretty even at the time, was certainly built to last a generation or two – and meant to use a comparatively small amount of energy during that time (few windows, high thermal mass, etc). A better example is Seattle City Hall. I believe the goal was to build a beautiful building that would last two centuries. Of course, the high cost to meet that criteria brought a lot of public scrutiny.

      1. Two examples of commercial structures that seem to be aging well (and holding up well to changing public taste) are the 1201 3rd building (the old WaMu tower) and 5th Avenue Plaza. They were both well constructed and the design of the interior doesn’t seem nearly as dated as some of their contemporaries. Though at least part of that is due to their owners maintaining them well.

      2. Matt, you should write an entire piece on this. People need to understand the realities of architecture and building.

        With regard to public buildings, I would add that the U.S. District Courthouse in Seattle is a beautiful building, and that government buildings in urban environments look so much better now than they did in the cold war era.

        No one really loves the 4-pack townhomes, and I do tend to view them as density w/out a purpose. They are usually not very close to anything you’d call a urban center (thinking of the ones north of 85th near Aurora), not connected to transit, and not very aesthetically pleasing. But I believe them to be a symptom of our poor land use polices and the failure of them to promote real density in the right places.

      3. There was an excellent post written in ’09 about why our townhouses are so bad. If you’re in a hurry, scroll down to the graphics near the bottom and skim from there. But I highly, highly recommend taking the time to read the whole thing.

        Bad design isn’t random. It’s a direct result of the rules we create combined with market forces.

  4. I beg to differ with your assertion that most Seattleites won’t identify with libertarianism. Indeed, it has infected a great deal of our public policy and politics. From the hollowing out of our public school system to votes in favor of sprawl producing deep bore boondoggles, Randianism rears its head often.

    What bothers me about this essay is it suggests that Libertarianism can be casually dismissed. You grossly underestimate the formidable forces you’re dealing with. Activist adherents to this philosophy are thoroughly committed to the destruction of the “American System” and our Federal Government. While calling themselves rationalists, they often use indirection to achieve their goals. They generally have a narrow view of economics and collapse anything to the left of that view as simply socialism or communistic.

    As an example, I recently had an exchange on Facebook with someone that didn’t have a concept of what a “public good” was and what differentiated it from private or common goods. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_good_(economics) ) She felt you could apply market principles to everything. It makes it pretty difficult to have a sane and rational conversation when the frames of reference are so skewed.

  5. I look at this photo and see a symbol of property rights, necessary for our freedom and a founding principle for our economic system to flourish.

    Why the hang up here about single family homes?

    Seattle, and our region, can absorb tremendous density if that’s our goal – without converting existing single family neighborhoods to something else. In fact, wholesale conversion would subvert much of the benefit of density by just marginally changing their populations without concentration.

    Targeting redevelopment to reinforce existing neighborhoods, increasing the range of housing choices, wringing out the subsidies that create rolling sprawl should be the focus.

    1. Seattle seems to have a greater proportion of single-family houses than older medium-sized cities, and they’re closer to the main streets. This is the problem: it prevents large walkable communities like Chicago’s north side from developing. Instead we have little islands of density that aren’t large enough to support Chicago levels of transport. Yes, we can leave many single-family areas alone, but the blocks next to major transit routes really need to densify. For instance, Edmunds Street and Othello Street between MLK and Rainier. There’s no reason to walk past a row of single-family houses between the Link station and Columbia city. The station areas should be the highest density, extending straight to the neighborhood centers. Around this island can be lower density, but not in the middle of it.

      1. Chicago has vast swaths of SFH areas especially in the northwest and west parts of the city. Walkability in its dense neighborhoods is also affected by super boulevards such as Sheridan Road, Irving Park Road and Western Ave for example that section off the city.

        What Chicago has going for it is it is very flat, sidewalks in fairly good repair, and an excellent bus system with frequent routes and easy connections including east/west transit. There are good walkable neighborhoods adjacent to many train stations but Chicago is still a very car oriented place with massive gridlock on surface streets and even on weekends. Oh, and a decent system of ped/bike paths.

      2. Enrique Penalosa gave a talk recently in Portland and suggested replacing the inner city bungalows with high rises. It horrified the audience because every one knows the replacement building stock could never equal the quality and sense of place as this historic fabric. I think he is right though and I think of myself as a preservationist, but our cities are supposed to evolve over time, thats how they always have in the past. And I agree, its all about creating a quality built environment something almost impossible to do today.

      3. If you take a bus on Fullerton, Belmont, Diversey, Montrose, or Lawrence Avenues, you go past block after block after block of 3 – 10 story apartments/condos interspersed with businesses. There are probably some isolated houses but they get lost in the mix. And I’m not counting row houses as “single family”. This all gives the impression of an entire rectangular area that’s medium density for several square miles. That’s what Seattle would benefit from. Where it could go is another question: Capitol Hill, Rainier Valley, Wallingford, or Ballard are all possibilities. But the single-family NIMBYs raise a huge scream if you suggest extending the multifamily area even one block.

        I know one single-family area in west Chicago (near Logan Square). I wouldn’t be surprised if everything west and north of that were single-family. But that’s not the area I’m talking about.

  6. I’m all for transit as it is financed elsewhere in the country (and the world, for that matter). But there is nothing good about Sound Transit’s financing plan. The tax costs to be imposed on the poor and middle class are grossly excessive. NOBODY finances train and bus service by pledging to collect regressive taxes at or near the maximum rates while any long term bonds sold to pay for the system remain outstanding.

    Here’s an estimate of the public costs of ST2 – the tax confiscations will total $85 billion over the next 40 years just to secure the bonds that would be sold to cover most of the $13.5 billion in ST2 capital costs. That’s abusive any way you look at it.

    Moreover, on Independence Day it’s worth pointing out how Sound Transit’s board structure is an anathema to everything this country stands for. People here can not exert any control over who controls that board, or the policies that board sets, by any political means. That is contrary to a right afforded Americans by the US Constitution — we have the right to vote local government policy-makers both in to and out of office.

    Transit in the abstract is a fine amenity. The way it is executed here though is abusive to the public.

      1. Oh, and this being Declaration of Independence Day, I’d like the rugged individualists to remind us why life was so much better under the Articles of Confederation.

      2. Zed writes: I love it when clueless people invoke the Constitution.

        Wow!

        Even half-way informed Americans know they have the constitutional right to vote state and local government legislators both in and out of office.

        The duly-authorized state political structure that was deemed to be unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in _Reynolds v. Sims_ prevented people from using their votes to select a government’s policy makers. Google it.

        That’s the same flaw with Sound Transit’s governance structure.

        People here have no right vote 15 of the 18 policy makers on to that government’s board (or off of it).

        The state policies that were deemed to be unconstitutional in _Reynolds v. Sims_ prevented people from using their votes to select a government’s policy makers. Google it.

        Want to try arguing there’s a legally-significant difference between the flawed political structure struck down in _Reynolds v. Sims_ and the political structure here that doesn’t allow people to vote for who sits on Sound Transit’s governing board?

        You get this, right? Americans were deprived of their right to vote for government policy makers in the situation the US Supreme Court remedied via the _Reynolds v. Sims_ opinion. The Court struck down as unconstitutional those state laws, which infringed peoples’ right to vote for state legislators.

        Americans also have a fundamental US Constitutional right to vote for local government policy makers. That was addressed by the US Supreme Court in the following opinion:

        _Sailors v. Kent Bd. of Education_, 387 U.S. 105 (1967).

        You can read it here:

        http://supreme.justia.com/us/387/105/case.html

        Did you know that Americans have the constitutional right to vote for local government policy makers, or are you REALLY hearing that for the first time from me?

      3. The ST board is purely administrative, not legislative, and appointed administrative boards have never been found unconstitutional.

      4. Why do you think Sound Transit’s board only can perform “administrative” functions but not “legislative” functions?

        It has legislative powers. For example, it has the power to sell unlimited amounts of long-term bonds that are secured by its powers to confiscate unlimited scores of billions of dollars of sales taxes. It can condemn thousands of parcels of private property of its choosing. It can promulgate rules the violation of which will result in civil infractions enforceable by courts. Throughout the history of this country only state and local legislative bodies have possessed those powers.

      5. If you believe the current structure of Sound Transit is unconstitutional why don’t you sue to have it declared as such. Because complaining about such things on Internet forums isn’t going to get Sound Transit’s governance structure changed. There are two routes available to do such a thing, one through the State Legislature and the other through the courts.

      6. The ST board is purely administrative, not legislative,

        ST’s board has been saying since 1996 that it has LEGISLATIVE and POLICY-SETTING powers, and that those were delegated to it by the state legislature.

        Here’s an example of that admission from 2008 (Resolution 2008-10, Appendix B, page B-2):

        ******
        LEGAL RESONSIBILITIES

        In adopting these Financial Policies, the Board recognizes certain legal responsibilities. Existing state law grants all legislative and policy authority to the Board, and does not allow the Board to abrogate, transfer or delegate such authority to other agencies or to the five subareas within the Sound Transit District.
        ******

        Why do you think it has only “purely administrative” powers, Zed? That’s not what the board says!

      7. Apparently you don’t understand the difference between legislation and administration.

        I also find it funny that you sited a case, Sailors v. Kent Bd. of Education, which doesn’t support your argument. The justices who ruled on the case supported appointed boards.

        “There is no constitutional reason why nonlegislative state or local officials may not be chosen otherwise than by elections. The functions of appellee school board are essentially administrative, and the elective-appointive system used to select its members is well within the State’s latitude in the selection of such officials.”

      8. Well, Zed, first you ignore the admission by Sound Transit’s board that it possesses LEGISLATIVE powers. Aren’t you going to try to say the board was wrong? Now you try to equate the powers those school boards in New York State had in the 1960’s to the powers the board of Sound Transit possesses. Those school boards did nothing but determine how much of the existing county property tax revenue would be needed by a school district in an upcoming year. That’s a purely administrative function.

        Per the _Sailors_ opinion, there is a particular analytic structure the US Supreme Court says is to be used to ascertain whether a local government with an appointive board was delegated excessive powers by the state.

        The key question is: Are the powers that were delegated “legislative in the classical sense”? If so, they are excessive. Appointive boards wielding legislative powers violate the US Constitution. That is because the individuals setting government policies over Americans MUST be accountable to people. Americans have the right to vote people who can set local legislative policies both into and out of office. Sound Transit’s board admits it possesses legislative powers.

        In contrast, the US Constitution is not violated if an appointive board merely was delegated powers that local government staffers traditionally have undertaken without having to first obtain formal approval or direction from the governing board. The term the _Sailors_ opinion uses to describe that type of limited powers that can be delegated to appointive boards is “essentially administrative functions”. Those are the only kinds of things the school board at issue in that case could do.

        In the case of Sound Transit, the broad, unchecked and extraordinary governmental powers delegated to its board clearly are “legislative in the classical sense”. Here’s a partial list of those discretionary powers:

        – the power to decide how many tens of billions of dollars of regressive tax to impose,

        – the power to decide which types of taxes to impose,

        – the power to decide how many decades to impose new local taxes (done via bond sale contracts resolutions),

        – the power to incur unlimited billions of dollars of debt, secured by scores of billions of dollars of intergenerational tax confiscations,

        – the power to use eminent domain powers to take thousands of private properties (including partial interests in private properties),

        – the power to disregard all county and municipal land use regulations when the board sets train line locations and station sites,

        – the power to establish and maintain an autonomous police force of statutory law enforcement officers (to the same extent as the governing bodies of cities of the first class in this state),

        – the power to set fares to impose on the public,

        – the powers to set and impose fines on people that courts will enforce,

        – the power to set unlimited spending budgets on dozens of capital projects (including projects with multi-billion dollar budgets),

        – the power to create and fund massive reserve accounts of unlimited size that to fill with public money, including tax revenues (currently Sound Transit holds over $1 billion in investments), and

        – the power to unilaterally decide the locations for new train rights-of-way, tunnels, and stations.

        Such powers are “legislative in the classical sense” – only the legislatures of states possess such a range of extraordinary governmental powers.

        Why don’t you just admit Sound Transit was delegated excessive powers by the legislature, Zed?

      9. Again Mr. Clay if you believe Sound Transit’s board violates one man, one vote, then I suggest you file suit in Federal Court.

        I really don’t see what is stopping you since there are plenty of ST opponents out there who would doubtless assist you in your efforts.

      10. All of the board’s administrative powers were given to them by the state legislature. The board has no legislative authority, plan and simple. After the King County Metro governance structure was found to be unconstitutional in the early 90’s there is no way the state legislature would have set up another unconstitutional authority. If they did I can guarantee that someone would have taken them to court by now. Why can’t you just admit that you’re wrong? Oh, I forgot, you’re a crackpot and crackpots only believe themselves.

      11. When you look at the way the law of this state distinguishes between legislative and administrative acts you can see that all the powers listed above delegated to Sound Transit’s appointive board fall into the “legislative” category:

        “The test of what is a legislative and what is an administrative proposition is said to be whether the proposition is one to make new law or to execute law already in existence. 2 E. McQuillin, Municipal Corporations § 10.06 (3d rev. ed. 1979). A power to be exercised is legislative if it prescribes a new policy or plan. It is administrative if it merely pursues a plan already adopted by the legislative body itself, or some power superior to it. See Durocher v. King Cy., 80 Wn.2d 139, 152-53, 492 P.2d 547 (1972).”

        Convention Ctr. Coalition v. City of Seattle, 107 Wn.2d 370, 378-79, 730 P.2d 636 (1986).

        The imposition of new permanent taxing, the widespread use of eminent domain powers, the siting of permanent rail stations – those all are “new laws” the board of Sound Transit created via their resolutions. In no sense were those new permanent governmental undertakings “executing law already in existence”.

        When Sound Transit’s board sets formal policies for that government via its resolutions (such as Res. R2008-10) it “prescribes a new policy or plan”. It is not “merely pursuing a plan already adopted by the legislative body itself, or some power superior to it.” Res. R2008-10 established the ST2 plan – you understand that plan had not been adopted previously by any legislative body (and certainly not by the state legislature), right Zed?

        There’s no possible argument that Sound Transit’s board only was delegated administrative powers by the state legislature.

    1. How dare any governmental entity ask for permission from the public to tax the public, and get it? I tell ya, that’s abuse in the extreme!

      Real freedom-lovin’ libertarians take their land at the point of gun. (At least, that has been the tradition in this country.)

      And why should ST enjoy the highest possible bond rating (which they currently enjoy)? That’s gotta be proof of something sinister … and we’re all part of that conspiracy to undermine Survival of the Best-Armed.

      1. How dare any governmental entity ask for permission from the public to tax the public

        The ballot measure did not hint at the amount of tax the post-vote board actions would entail. What the public was told before the vote was that the tax rollback would occur in the mid-2030s. Now the truth is starting to emerge; the tax rollback likely won’t happen until the mid-2050s.

        Let’s do it this way, Brent. Estimate how much tax the bond sale contracts will require Sound Transit to collect from individuals and families in this region. My estimate is $85 billion. Once you’ve got an estimate, explain how that might be a reasonable figure given 1) reasonable capital and operations expenses over that contract-mandated period, and 2) the amount of new regressive taxing peer transit services providers engage in to build out new light rail extensions.

        Another question for you: Sound Transit’s bond rating is a function of excessive taxing. Why do you think that bond rating is worth excessive taxing? If the rating were lower due to reasonable taxing levels the additional costs to that government of servicing its debt would be minimal. That tradeoff certainly would be better for the poor and middle class here that is targeted by the taxing of that government.

      2. You clearly don’t understand bonds and interest, Henry, or whatever pseudonym you’re going by today. Why don’t you just stick to one pseudonym? Your language and single-mindedness give you away every time, so what’s the point?

    2. How would Henry pay off the bonds if we don’t charge a high-ish tax rate until they’re retired? If you cut the rate in half, the bonds would be outstanding for twice as long (or rather more, because they’d demand a higher interest for the increased risk). Plus, that would be twice as many years that we couldn’t fund extensions, and we’ve got a lot of areas that are underserved and need extensions now.

      The alternative would be not to have the bonds at all, but that means no transit improvements.

      1. The alternative would be not to have the bonds at all, but that means no transit improvements.

        All you have to do is look at how TriMet’s extensive light rail system is paid for to show how wrong you are, Mike. TriMet does not impose any new regressive taxes targeting individuals and families. It never has done that. It built out 55 miles of line, plus scores of stations, without using any long term bonding. In contrast, Sound Transit’s abusive financing plan for less rail and stations could well cost the people of this relatively small region $85 billion in taxing over the next 40 years. That financing plan still has not been disclosed by the unaccountable political appointees comprising that board. TriMet didn’t use massive regressive taxing and billions of dollars of new long-term bonds to build out light rail.

        The only reason the people here are subject to that kind of unnecessary and abusive financing plan is the greed of the self-interested bond lawyers who designed the financing plans for Sound Transit and the Seattle Popular Monorail Authority. You agree, right?

      2. How does TriMet pay for it then? The initial MAX lines were built with mainly federal funds, a luxury that no longer exists in the 2000s.

      3. How does TriMet pay for it then?

        TriMet’s traditional and current way for paying for transit is summarized here:

        http://trimet.org/pdfs/publications/factsheet.pdf
        and here
        http://trimet.org/about/dashboard.htm

        TriMet serves three counties around Portland. It only needs about $230 million in local taxing each year to provide expanding bus and rail systems and services to roughly the same population as the Sound Transit taxing area. The TriMet financing plan imposes taxes on businesses directly. The average family there pays $0 in direct taxes for transit each year.

        Light rail is dirt cheap for people in the Portland area because proper financing techniques are used. There is a light rail construction project underway there now that is in several ways comparable to East Link. Planning for it began after the East Link planning commenced. That extension will be in operation in 2015, though:

        http://www.progressiverailroading.com/passenger_rail/news/TriMet-marks-oneyear-milestone-for-PortlandMilwaukie-lightrail-bridge–29298

        Sound Transit won’t even BEGIN construction of East Link until 2016 (at the earliest), and the plan for opening it to service recently was pushed back by three years (until 2023).

        Here is some information about that new light rail line TriMet is building out, which includes a new multi-purpose bridge across the Willamette river:

        http://trimet.org/pdfs/pm/PMLR_Fact_Sheet_February2010.pdf

        Part of what that document says is this:

        “Project funding

        “Project costs are approximately $1.4 billion. The Federal share is expected to range from 50 to 60 percent ($710 to $850 million) of the total costs. To date, $412.5 million in local, regional and state funds have been identified for the project.”

        That’s how all the sensible peers finance light rail. TriMet arranges large federal grants to pay for most of it, then they tap other sources that DO NOT include massive new regressive tax hikes.

        Contrary to what you assert, there is and has been plenty of New Starts money for appropriate light rail projects. That source has not dried up during the past decade, and billions more will be available going forward thanks to the new Transpo Bill that passed at the end of last week in DC.

      4. Tri-Met gets other people to pay for their light rail, that’s the responsible thing to do!

      5. Of course Tri-Met doesn’t use sales taxes, Oregon does not have a sales tax and the Oregon legislature has never granted subsidiary government entities the power to impose one. OTOH it would be impossible for transit agencies here to use a payroll tax like Tri-Met does without being granted that authority by the Washington State Legislature.

        Second for a number of reasons LINK is costing considerably more to construct than MAX has in the past or is for future expansions. There are a number of reasons for this including a lack of suitable inexpensive right of way. The increased grade separation of LINK makes for a better if more expensive system.

        You’ll note that the initial line to Gresham and the Westside expansion were built with levels of Federal funding (75% to 85%) that simply don’t happen any more. Also note the Westside expansion to Tigard and Beaverton was by far the most expensive of the MAX lines (in inflation adjusted terms) and the one most comparable to Central LINK, U LINK, North LINK, or East LINK.

        If you look at the dollar amounts of Federal grants provided to the Green Line or to the Milwaukee Line they are comparable to what Sound Transit has received or is expecting to receive for Central LINK and U LINK. It is true that Sound Transit is not applying for FTA grants for North LINK or East LINK, however for a number of reasons those lines aren’t expected to fare well under the FTA grant scoring criteria. Those scoring criteria are not the be all and end all of what makes sense in a transit line. Compromises were made both on Central LINK and U LINK in order to maintain a score eligible for grants even though the alternatives like keeping the First Hill station would have led to a better urban transit system.

    3. So, how many times the purchase price are you going to pay in your mortgage?

      We could theoretically try to collect the money up front for these projects but people bitch about the taxes they pay now. Debt serves a reasonable purpose in financing public projects and it gives the 1% a safe haven for their money to work for them.

      We could also create a state bank where we the people loan money to ourselves I suppose. But then again, libertarians would think that was a socialistic endeavor.

      1. The “responsible” thing to do for all capital projects would be to raise the money first, and then spend it in cash. That would dramatically lower our lifetime expenses. But it would require raising money for five or ten years with no immediate benefit. Voters get nervous about this because it spans election terms, and the next administration might reallocate the money for a totally different transit goal or non-transit project.

        Another possibility would be to continually raise money with no predefined goal, so that the councils would have cash on hand to spend immediately when a project is decided. But voters get even more nervous about that, and demand that the government rebate the kitty or suspend taxes until it’s depleted. So this is impossible too.

        That leaves bond sales as the only way to finance capital projects.

        Yes, we do need a state capital bank, so that public projects aren’t subject to the whim of profit-minded investors. We don’t have a responsibility to offer them bonds at attractive rates; they can find somebody else to buy bonds from.

    4. @Henry Clay,

      I assume it bothers the heck out of you that we have a US Senate that is not elected by any principle of one-person-one-vote.

    5. Mr. Clay,
      First of all Sound Transit is hardly the only transit system in the country financed via sales taxes. Second they are hardly the only transit system in the country to make use of bonds to finance capital projects. The 50% bond financing is actually fairly conservative as public infrastructure projects go.

      I’ll point out that residents of the Sound Transit District have voted in a majority to impose every tax Sound Transit collects.

      You do need to remember Washington State provides no real support to large transit systems here unlike some other states in the country. However at the end of the day that money still comes out of the taxpayer pockets even if the source was the general fund.

      1. First of all Sound Transit is hardly the only transit system in the country financed via sales taxes.

        No peer uses new sales taxes at anything like a .9% rate for building out light rail. Moreover, no peer pledges new sales taxes at or near .9% for the length of time Sound Transit is proposing due to the abusive security terms in the bonds it sells. The people in and around Portland TriMet serves paid NO regressive taxes for the 55 miles of light rail and expanding bus service they have. The tax cost to the public of the abusive Sound Transit financing plan may well be $85 billion through 2055. Zero regressive tax revenue confiscated vs. $85 billion in regressive tax revenue confiscated for less of a system — obviously that is not a fair or responsible financing plan. And no, it is not justified on the grounds that people voted in favor of more trains.

      2. So you’re in favor of people having the right to vote, except for when they vote for something you don’t approve of.

      3. So you’re in favor of people having the right to vote, except for when they vote for something you don’t approve of.

        Nope. You’ve got that all wrong. It isn’t what I favor, it’s what the US Constitution requires. The US Constitution guarantees Americans the right to vote in and out of office local government legislators (such as Sound Transit’s boardmembers).

        The fact that voters approved several ordinances adopted by that board in no way diminishes or eliminates that US Constitutional guarantee. In other words, the 2008 vote is completely meaningless in terms of whether or not Sound Transit is structured in manner that complies with what the Constitution requires. Even if those ordinances voters approved in 2008 described a reasonable financing plan Sound Transit’s board structure would not comply with the constitutional guarantee that Americans are to have the right to vote for local legislators.

      4. First of all Houston has a 1% sales tax to pay for transit, I’m sure it isn’t the only example of a transit agency funded by taxes similar to Sound Transit.

        As for the bond financing I’ll point out that 50% bond financing is hardly unusual for a public infrastructure project and a 30-year bond term is not uncommon either. While it is true that Sound Transit is currently under no obligation to reduce the tax rate as long as some bonds are outstanding, I fully expect they will put any money collected that is not being used for current capital projects, operations, or debt service toward additional projects. Oh and this is hardly the first time a tax has been passed to service bonds but outlasts the bonds it was imposed to cover.

        Second I’ll point out that Oregon does not have a sales tax but does have an income tax something Washington does not. A payroll tax such as is used by Tri-Met wouldn’t pass the legislature (as the legislature would need to create the taxing authority) and even if it did there is a good chance Washington courts would rule such a tax unconstitutional. Furthermore transit systems in Oregon enjoy a degree of support in the form of state funding that we currently lack here in Washington. Given the radically different tax structures in Washington and Oregon I don’t doubt how ST is financed and how Tri-Met is financed are different.

        And really, what is the point of your venting? Do something about it (via a lawsuit, initiative, or legislation) or go away. If you just want to rant about how you think ST is some sort of corruption scheme you aren’t going to find many allies here.

      5. Henry,
        Again if you think the structure of Sound Transit is unconstitutional I suggest you file a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. Remember it was a Federal lawsuit that got the federated board structure of the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle declared unconstitutional and that ultimately forced Metro’s merger with King County.

      6. First of all Houston has a 1% sales tax to pay for transit

        That’s for buses and trains. Around here the taxing for buses and trains is a 1.8% sales tax, car tab taxes for Metro and Sound Transit, and a property tax for Metro. That’s much heavier and more regressive than in Houston. More importantly, in Houston they don’t pledge sales taxes at or near the maximum rates for 50 years just as security for long term bonds. They use reasonable financing plans that leverage federal grants.

        As for the bond financing I’ll point out that 50% bond financing is hardly unusual for a public infrastructure project and a 30-year bond term is not uncommon either.

        BS. Nobody builds out light rail by selling about $8.8 billion of new local government long term bonds secured by 40+ years of sales tax confiscations at or near a rate of .9%. Your fact-free assertion there is bunk.

        A payroll tax such as is used by Tri-Met wouldn’t pass the legislature (as the legislature would need to create the taxing authority) and even if it did there is a good chance Washington courts would rule such a tax unconstitutional.

        Stop lying, Chris. Sound Transit has a employer tax of the type TriMet uses, only Sound Transit’s board decided to go with more regressive taxes targeting poor communities instead:

        RCW 81.104.150. Employer tax.

        … [R]egional transit authorities may submit an authorizing proposition to the voters and if approved may impose an excise tax of up to two dollars per month per employee on all employers located within the applicable jurisdiction, measured by the number of full-time equivalent employees, solely for the purpose of providing high capacity transportation service.

      7. Henry,
        You obviously don’t have a clue what the difference between a head tax and a payroll tax is.

    6. Chris Stefan wonders: If you believe the current structure of Sound Transit is unconstitutional why don’t you sue to have it declared as such.

      The answer to that is simple. I would if I believed the state judiciary were capable of treating such a claim fairly. Based on how the justices routinely act corruptly for the interest group getting rich off the excessive taxing and bond selling though, I’m convinced such a lawsuit would be met by the same kind of deceitful behavior the justices engaged in in the series of lawsuits described here:

      http://susan-owens.webs.com/

      Take a look at that, Chris. Did you know that the justices are lying scumbags?

      1. Take a look at that, Chris. Did you know that the justices are lying scumbags?

        OK, fine, you don’t believe you’ll get a fair hearing. What are you doing about it other than venting? You do know we elect judges in this state, don’t you? Work to get people who agree with you elected to the bench. You can also try to get the legislature to change the underlying law, or even have them dissolve Sound Transit. Finally you can always take your case to court then appeal to the Federal Courts if you believe the state courts have ruled incorrectly.

        I’ll point out that several of those rulings were prior to the 2008 vote on ST2, which I remind you passed at the ballot box. You may be concerned about some of these things but the voters clearly aren’t.

      2. OK, fine, you don’t believe you’ll get a fair hearing. What are you doing about it other than venting?

        I don’t think anyone would get a fair hearing in this state’s courts regarding whether or not Sound Transit has a constitutional governance structure.

        So what are your thoughts on that, Chris? Contrary to what Zed claims above, the powers the state legislature delegated to the appointee-controlled board of Sound Transit plainly are legislative. The board creates new, and permanent, governmental policies of general applicability. Examples are its use of eminent domain powers, the new general taxes the board imposes, the siting of permanent rail facilities throughout the region, etc. Because such legislative powers were delegated to an appointive board we’re now in a situation where a limit on local governments set by the US Constitution has been violated. That limit is the constitutional guarantee to Americans of a right to vote local government legislators both in and out of office.

        If you disagree with that assessment, explain why. Otherwise, give us your thoughts on whether Sound Transit should continue to exist as it now is structured. Do you think this government that possesses an unconstitutional structure should continue to exist? Do you believe the fact that it is building train lines means that despite an unconstitutional structure it should continue to exist? I’m trying to gauge how important you believe constitutional limits on governments to be.

        I understand there are lots of “rail fans” on this website, that is why I’m raising this issue here. I don’t know whether the fact that this government provides train and bus services is enough to elevate it in its supporters’ minds above the constitution.

      3. With the sole exception of the WSDOT Secretary, all of the ST BOD is an elected official. Now, you personally cannot vote for or against most of them, but the same is true of the state legislature and the federal Congress.

        ST has the powers it needs to accomplish their program. Those powers were delegated by the state legislature. Among those are the ability to levy certain taxes (upon approval of the voters). If you want to complain about the regressive nature of the taxes, take it up with the state legislature.

      4. Now, you personally cannot vote for or against most of them, but the same is true of the state legislature and the federal Congress.

        The difference between Sound Transit’s board (on the one hand) and “the state legislature and the federal Congress” on the other is that the former is comprised of 15 political appointees and 3 directly-elected members (the three county executives). NOBODY in the RTA district has any right to directly elect 15 of those 18 boardmembers, so it is an appointive board. In contrast, “the state legislature and the federal Congress” are comprised 100% of directly-elected members. “The state legislature and the federal Congress” are for that reason legal under the constitution’s guarantee to Americans of the right to vote legislators in and out of office.

        ST has the powers it needs to accomplish their program. Those powers were delegated by the state legislature. Among those are the ability to levy certain taxes (upon approval of the voters). If you want to complain about the regressive nature of the taxes, take it up with the state legislature.

        The fact that the taxes are regressive is a symptom of the constitutional flaw, not the flaw itself. Those powers it was delegated are excessive given how the board is, and always will remain, controlled by political appointees. The fact that there was a vote on a transit expansion plan in no way cures the constitutional defect. You get that, right?

      5. Man, it’s gotta be tough to be the ONE GUY who understands the Constitution in the whole state. To be stuck pissing into the wind while Link just keeps on rolling on, with the support of the majority of this region.

      6. Lots of people understand a constitutional limit on local governments in this country is that people subject to them have a right to vote the legislators on and off the boards. Lots of people around here know full well that Sound Transit’s structure is unlawful as it does not comply with that constitutional limit.

        I asked Chris a question he doesn’t seem interested in addressing — maybe you’ll want to tell us your views on it Matthew (you’re a big “rail fan”). Sound Transit provides train and bus services. In your view, is that enough to give it a pass even though it doesn’t comply with the constitutional guarantee to Americans of a right to vote for local government legislators? Heck, there were lots of transit fans around here who were upset that old-Metro was declared unconstitutional in 1990. They would have preferred it continued as a government (even though it was violating the one-person one-vote limit) and not moved over to become an agency of King County.

      7. Henry,
        The thing is I don’t believe the structure of Sound Transit is unconstitutional. You obviously disagree, but I don’t see what good arguing with you about it here does. You’re not going to change my mind and I’m not going to change yours.

    1. Try over a century. Would you prefer we all live in longhouses, or in company tents belonging to the lumber barons (who got all their land through legitimate means, of course)?

  7. Macefield ‘s house could have been moved to the view lot of her choice had she negotiated. (Just like that Disney cartoon!).

    Where are her neighbors in that photo? Gone!

    The city grows. Get with it.

    1. After the post criticizing front yard setbacks, we see here an example of zero setbacks and the neighborly face an adjoining land owner can create.

      Zoning reflects societies collective desire for place (sometimes good, and of course sometimes very, very bad) where we agree to limit our freedom for a societal good. Not sure in this example it worked out so well.

      1. Actually her house encroached on her neighbors property. If I remember correctly the inside face of her foundation was the property line.

      2. Zoning by it’s very nature encroaches upon the freedom of the landowner. Now it may be offset by helping protect others, but the encroachment is always there.

      3. If someone buys a parcel zoned one way and it retains that zoning, I can’t really see this as an encroachment on the purchaser’s rights. And if the zoning changes in such a way as to benefit the owner, or if a road or transit project makes the parcel more accessible, that would represent a pretty sweet gift to the owner.

      4. The zoning code restricts the rights of property owners for the benefit of their neighbors. Simple as that.

        Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

  8. I think another reason that Edith Macefield is considered a hero, especially in Ballard, is that at the time this all happened, Ballard was being inundated with a bunch of boring, boxy condos, that really took away from the uniqueness of Ballard. While we don’t hate progress, we also wonder why progress can’t at least look good. It seems like the city just rubber stamps the ugliest designs, the developer comes in, builds and runs and “we the people” are left with the ugly monstrosities.

    Edith Macefield, along with her neighbors (and don’t forget Mike’s Chili Parlor) were all offered large sums of money. She said no. Now, when you are coming across the bridge into Ballard, you can see what she was saying no to: a large, monolithic ugliness, complete with a sign welcoming you to LA Fitness, Seattle.

    But why are we in Seattle supposed to be complacent with the bland, Californicated condos that are popping up everywhere? If you look at Portland, specifically the Pearl District, you can see that density doesn’t have to be ugly. And I doubt these Portland developers are designing good looking buildings out of the goodness of their hearts. They have a department that isn’t rubber stamping designs left and right. Why can’t we?

    1. Good questions.

      Part of my answer can be found in this post: https://seattletransitblog.com/2012/06/27/housing-affordability-where-do-rents-come-from/

      The way we build depends, mostly, on how we finance. The two are obviously linked. One could argue that a better building, though more costly, will create a greater return on investment. But often the institutions that fund development, especially banks, don’t want to take that risk.

      That’s why we have to support developments like Skanska’s Stone34 (http://www.stonethirtyfour.com/).

      Also, not every building is going to be perfect just like every car isn’t going to be perfect. Ugly cars haven’t stopped people from driving, and even ugly buildings serve a purpose.

      Reducing developer costs by reducing regulation and process would be a big incentive to put more money into materials and design. In today’s world, projects like Stone34 are being opposed simply because it will change the status quo. Therefore, ironically, the cry of “We were here first!” is also part of the reason why buildings are ugly.

      1. The opposition to Stone34 seems centered on the increased height and whether the living building tradeoffs are worth it. There actually doesn’t seem to be much opposition to a building that would meet the current zoning.

    2. My understanding is she wasn’t making a statement against growth. She just wanted to live in the house she’d owned for decades until she died.

      I don’t know why the Ballard Blocks developer didn’t make the project “expandable”, to seamlessly add a building section at a later date. Maybe he did, but that was canceled when he decided to make the house into a memorial.

      1. I believe the building was designed to be expandable, but the building owner doesn’t own the house. I think Edith sold the house to the construction foreman, who sold it to some investment company. What their plans are, I don’t think anyone knows.

  9. Giving up one’s house so a gym and a grocery store can have a little bit more square footage is doing our civic duty?

  10. Seems to me some people are looking at the given example wrong. She was offered a lot of money for her house, she did not want to sell. She did not sell as was her right, the neighbor/developer built around her. Her rights maintained (although affected), developer’s rights maintained (although less optimally than if she had sold out). Where is the problem? Given enough value most people will sell, if they don’t want to they can’t be forced (unless via government for the public good). Up zone an area and eventually most people will choose to cash out, if they don’t want to no problem…developers can go to other properties that do want to sell. Eventually those that don’t want to sell will die and chances are their kids will sell.

    1. +1

      She didn’t have to sell but they didn’t have to make any accommodations for her house (not like a lot the weird setbacks we might see in other parts of town).

    2. You could read this, as Mr. Berger does, as a valiant struggle of one woman against big business and the evil forces of Californication. I look at it and see an example of the importance of getting zoning and planning right for the long term.

      Whether you find the new building to be lovely or tacky, it was evidently legal to build under the city’s current zoning laws. If this ain’t the sort of thing you want, you need different laws.

      1. I look at it as an example of someone who would have rather stayed in her own damn house for the few remaining years of her life, instead of being uprooted and getting lots of money she didn’t ask for just for the sake of having it (in piles, perhaps?) for the last few months or years of her life.

        If one has to use it as an example of anything, how about “sometimes, in some places, money isn’t everything.”

  11. I completely reject the either/or dichotomy on Libertarianism. Libertarians have some very valid points about the relationship between the individual and the state that shouldn’t be blithely dismissed. I even used to call myself one before the Tea Party tarnished the word.

    What we need to do is make some clear distinctions between where there is a legitimate communitarian imperative and where there isn’t. I would agree with Roger that for environmental reasons, where you live and how you get around is to some extent society’s business. That’s why I support smart growth policies, public transit, carbon taxes, etc. However, if someone wants to drink a Supersized Mountain Dew or smoke a joint or a cigarette in the privacy of their own home (sorry, Roger), that’s nobody else’s business. Unfortunately, too many progressives don’t catch the different.

  12. I think both sides are missing the point. Mrs Macefield was an elderly woman who just wanted to live out her days in her own home. Even with a big chunk of change from the sale of that home, where was she to go? One of our many warehouses for the elderly? From the most modest SHAG building to swank places like The Hearthstone, they are cliquish collections of (mostly) widows who tend to isolate strangers, before categorizing you by what your husband did.

    Ten or twenty years earlier, she probably would have taken the money and ran. She was just tired of running.

    1. Well put.

      Ms. Macefield just wanted to wait out the rest of her days at her own window, wearing the face that she kept in a jar by the door. She had every right to do so, and she seemed more bemused than displeased that the world was changing around her as she did.

      The “communal good” does not rest upon mass-eminent-domaining everyone who came before you so that some developer can paint on a clean canvas. Most such tabula rasa city-building endeavors have done more harm than good.

      The Roosevelt Neighborhood Association, which with its claims immutable “neighborhood character” and its absurd “view protection” attempted to speak for all residents present and future, was a legitimate adversary. Edith Macefield, who never spoke for anyone but herself, is not.

      Heaven help Roger if he can’t tell the difference.

  13. Sort of wondering where all the anti-gun sentiment popped up from? Did the NRA try and block a light rail or bus route somewere? (I get that pro-gun groups mostly support anti-transit Republicans, but still.) Normally, I don’t see this blog as highly slanted (other than being pro-transit), but then sometimes the slant just about goes vertical.

    How about a piece addressing issues surrounding the (perfectly-legal-in-most-places-today) concealed carrying of firearms on public transit? That would be interesting, especially if it didn’t assume the people carrying were all anti-transit Rand worshippers! :D

    1. I don’t think one line (and I actually had to reread the entire thread to find it) stating that most Seattlites wouldn’t easily identify with someone who owns lots of guns as the blog expressing anti-gun sentiment. Especially when the gun part was not the main focus, but merely one example of many listed.

      Not to mention, IT’S TRUE! LOL.

      1. Hmmm… Having just re-read the article and comment thread myself, I’ll retract my complaint for being a bit petty and over-sensitive.

        That said, I think some stereotypes were trotted out which are off-base and even a bit comical- Remember, Rand’s protagonists Hank Reardon and Dagny Taggart were being stymied by evil bureaucrats and uneducated voters in their construction a high-tech, high-speed rail line with passenger service! LOL.

        I’m a Seattlite, a libertarian and a gun-owner but I’m certainly not anti-transit, anti-density, anti-tax (at the local level/municipal level) or any other anti- that may or may not have been strongly implied by various parties about gun-owners, libertarians or small minorities of Seattle residents.

        I guess I’m saying, I like this site best when it cleaves to facts, to well-reasoned arguments about issues, making fun of the Low-Density Paradise of Kent and maybe ribbing Sam or Norman. :D

  14. So how does Portland fund transit improvements, and is it better than what Sound Transit does? My understanding is that the tri-county region has a government layer called Metro that handles transportation among other things, and Tri-Met is somehow under that?

    Henry wrote, “The people in and around Portland TriMet serves paid NO regressive taxes for the 55 miles of light rail and expanding bus service they have.” So where does TriMet get the money from? If the answer is, “They spend a lower amount so it’s easier to find money,” then I would say that MAX is crippled because it was underbuilt. (No tunnel downtown, 20mph across the Steel Bridge, runs along highways not near activity centers, 15-minute maximum frequency except where lines overlap. I won’t get into the close stop spacing because that’s not a budget issue at this scale.) And of course, the initial MAX line was built with mainly federal funds, which are not available any longer.

  15. Those are some nice spite walls around Edith Macefield’s house. If anything this speaks to how much property rights are valued in Washington. In another part of the country the developer might very well have been able to get the City to use eminent domain to take Edith Macefield’s house. In Washington we don’t allow eminent domain to be used for private purposes. The few non-government exceptions are limited to utilities and transportation right-of-way (railroads and pipelines mostly).

    Here Edith could refuse to sell no matter what the developer offered her (which I believe included offers to move her home to another lot of her choice).

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