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Robb: Growing pains evident in the once rural area

The planning conceit – the notion that wonks, politicians and bureaucrats can determine the use of property and a community’s identity – dies hard.

The latest manifestation is in Pinal County, which is experiencing rapid residential growth, in significant part from those commuting to the Phoenix and Tucson areas for jobs.

Rapid growth puts pressure on governments to keep up with infrastructure and service needs. In Pinal, it’s apparently causing some identity issues as well.

They are growing up and don’t know what they want to be.

Pinal’s community leaders seem to know what they don’t want to be: Phoenix or Tucson. The premise is that there is something unpleasant or undesirable about Phoenix and Tucson.

The record would not seem to bear that out. Over the past 10 years, of the 23 major metro areas with a population between 2 million and 7 million, Phoenix ranked first in population growth, first in personal income growth and ninth in average wage growth.

Tucson hasn’t done shabbily either, comfortably outpacing the national average in all three categories.

Planners hate the suggestion that population growth reflects some sort of judgment about the desirability of a community. In a free society, however, migration does create a marketplace of sorts for communities, and population growth does reflect a favorable judgment about the relative desirability of a place.

There is another development reality that sets planners’ teeth on edge. The principal driver of growth within a community is the amount of home a family can afford in the kind of neighborhood in which they want to live.

People are willing to pay a large price in terms of commute times to maximize the value they perceive in their home.

This reality has foiled many a planner’s dream. And it is the reality that is driving the residential growth in Pinal.

Pinal, however, doesn’t want to be primarily a bedroom community for Phoenix and Tucson. And, ultimately, it’s not likely to be one.

For some time, jobs have tended to follow people, not the other way around.

Obviously businesses serving the needs of the new Pinal residents will crop up. And over time, employers will seek a competitive advantage in accessing the Pinal work force by locating jobs there and cutting the commute time.

To relieve their angst, the Pinal County Board of Supervisors hired the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University to plan their future. And, of course, Morrison recommended more government to attempt to plan and control things.

For the most part, these sort of planning spasms are palliative. They are usually only partially implemented, often barely so, and almost always are quickly overtaken by events on the ground.

However, there were two colossally bad ideas in the Morrison report.

To guard against Pinal being primarily a bedroom community for Phoenix and Tucson, the report recommends that land for commercial and industrial purposes be identified now and locked in with hard and unchangeable zoning.

Now all land-use plans identify general zones for various uses. However, the Morrison recommendation presumes that politicians and bureaucrats can divine the precise amount of industrial and commercial land that will be needed over the next 20 to 30 years and where precisely it would be optimally located.

The danger is overstated. And more flexibility to respond to market initiatives would better serve the community.

The mother of bad ideas, however, is the recommendation that there be a super transportation agency to deal with “mega-scale” transportation needs in the three-county region.

If Pinal wants to chart its own destiny, this is hardly the way to do it. Such an agency would perforce be dominated by Maricopa, which has the population and the money.

In reality, Pinal has a very discrete major transportation problem. It needs better connections between its developing areas and the developed urban areas in Phoenix and Tucson.

That’s a problem for which toll roads are the ideal solution, effective and fair.

Pinal’s angst is understandable. However, perspective is also in order.

There are worse problems to have than being a place where people in increasing numbers want to live.

More on Pinal County: Editorial: Growth to affect entire area

More on Pinal County: How to make the area a paradise, in 17 steps

More on Pinal County: Later generations will benefit from county’s foresight, county manager predicts

Robert Robb, an Arizona Republic columnist, writes about public policy and politics in Arizona. E-mail: robert.robb@arizonarepublic.com

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