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Doubling down on Az's dangerous development

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Rogue Columnist

Doubling down on Az's dangerous development

  • The Yarnell Hill Fire, burning a day after 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed in the blaze.
    USDAThe Yarnell Hill Fire, burning a day after 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed in the blaze.

One must give the Real Estate Industrial Complex credit for chutzpah. It will not go down with a whimper, but with a bang. And many fires.

Or rather, Arizona. The elites behind the growth machine will be long gone, safely behind their gates and walls in more hospitable climes.

I am reminded of this after reading a report that three subdivisions comprising 4,500 tract houses are "in the pipeline" in Flagstaff.

Situated in what was once the largest virgin ponderosa pine forest on the planet, now a slowly dying tinderbox thanks to climate change, Flagstaff was once a real town. It depended on the Santa Fe Railway, Kaibab Lumber Industries and other sawmills, and the college. The town was safely separated from the forest primeval.

Now the railroad merely passes through, the switching yard being removed. There's a mall and Super Wal-Mart. Subdivisions have been rammed into the trees. Aside from NAU and a few other employers, Flag is one more real estate hustle to be played until it gives out. Or burns down.

Reporters from the Arizona Republic have done a creditable job lately in exposing the degree in which mass-produced housing has been placed in fire zones. Since 1990, more than 230,000 have been built in fire-prone areas.

The most ghastly consequence so far has been the death of 19 hotshot firefighters outside of once tiny, wide-spot-in-a-dangerous-road Yarnell, defending a subdivision in a zone that had been declared "indefensible." From Google Earth, even a former Boy Scout can tell it is built in terrain guaranteed to carry wind and fire.

It is the worst loss of wildfire-fighters in American history. There's your bragging rights, Arizona. Mann Gulch, South Canyon? You're pikers.

And it won't be the last.

What began as costly assaults on nature, punctuated by Valinda Jo Elliott stalking off into the wilderness with all the essentials — shorts, flipflops, cigarette lighter and towel — and setting the worst fire in state it has become lethal business. It is the future.

I want to know names. Who profited from building these houses in fire zones? Who signed off on the permits? What members of Congress fast-tracked secret land swaps that allowed subdivisions in what was once National Forest, the people's land. Who is doing it still? And what politicians are profiting?

Put their names on monuments of infamy and place them prominently all around the state.

The last chance Arizonans had to stop this was the modest-but-real Prop. 200 sprawl boundaries in 2000. Early in the year, the initiative was leading in polls. The Real Estate Industrial Complex panicked, then mobilized and terrified voters through disinformation, and the measure was defeated.

After that, the growth boyz quietly platted and prepared virtually every piece of viable private land in the state for development. Sure, there is the kabuki of bureaucracy, but every proposal to pave over the state is approved.

They will not be stopped by a governor or Legislature. They own them. They also own discourse, so that much examination is forbidden of the viability of this one-trick pony, its huge and usually hidden costs, damage to one of the most beautiful places on the planet, and future given climate change and water limitations.

None of this is inevitable or "the free market."

Washington, Oregon and even Colorado show how better planning and permitting help protect wilderness, farm and ranch lands. A real model based on the market would price in the externalities so that these tract houses wouldn't be affordable, and it would be more cost effective to reinvest in town centers rather than building crapola on the fringes.

Apologists will say: You can't change this by more stringent zoning and higher taxes, especially outside established towns and cities — it will tank the economy. And they will say: More people are going to come no matter what — you can't stop it.

Which is it? If the former, the state needs a different economy. If the latter, then people will pay the real costs, including environmental, associated with making it possible to safely and sustainably have 6, 7, 8 million people in a place that can't handle them under sprawl conditions.

This is simply a racket. And a colossal mind-fuck for all those that buy into its propaganda. Arizona is still dependent on the last extraction industry. The biggest economic collapse in modern state history centered on this Ponzi scheme might have caused a pause to take stock and consider alternatives.

But no.

I can hardly bear traveling outside central Phoenix because I know how much has been lost. It grows harder and harder to easily reach what was once right there: A view of one of God's greatest creations without any evidence of man, much less being profaned by trashy sprawl. Now it is a landscape of heartbreak.

Those of us in this little band can make lists of the worst: Sedona, the edges of Prescott and Flagstaff, Payson and the Mogollon Rim, the once-pristine high desert around Tucson. Bullhead City. Prescott Valley. We think, Who could do such a thing? People who have come after 1990, and the growth boyz, think...well, they think they think.

Nineteen skilled young firefighters killed protecting suburban-style property that never should have been built? A cost of doing business.

The state's grotesque feral pursuit of lowest and worst use now has a body count. It will grow.

This commentary was originally posted on Rogue Columnist.

Jon Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan who runs the blog Rogue Columnist. He is a former op-ed and business columnist of the Arizona Republic, and retired as the economics columnist of the Seattle Times in 2019. Talton is also the author of 12 novels, including the David Mapstone Mysteries, which are set in Arizona.

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