EDITORIAL: Small is Beautiful, Part One

“But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

— Televised speech by President Jimmy Carter, July 1979

About 40 people gathered in the Senior Center dining room last night, Thursday February 9, to participate in a discussion about ‘lot sizes.’ Town Planner James Dickhoff led off the discussion by explaining why, and how, the Town plans to reduce the minimum allowable lot sizes within the downtown area (and in a couple of small neighborhoods uptown) to encourage increased residential density.

Currently, the Town requires that residential parcels be at least 7,500 square feet — mainly because that’s the size of nearly all the lots within the downtown neighborhoods, as defined by a town plat drawn in 1883, before the town existed. We will never know why the 1883 survey chose 7,500 square feet — about 1/6th of an acre — as the proper size for a residential lot. A reasonably sized single family home can fit on a parcel one-quarter that size, and still have room for modest front and back yards.

Perhaps, in 1883, the survey team assumed each household would want to establish a small farm on their property? Including enough pasture to graze a milk cow?  Who knows.

Last month, the Town Council approved the first reading of Ordinance 853, which would amend the Town’s Land Use and Development Code, making three basic changes. The R-18 districts — which currently allow up to three dwellings on a typical 7,500 square foot parcel — will be changed to R-22, thus allowing up to four dwellings to be built on such a parcel. (We can imagine these might be four-plex apartments, or possibly townhomes that share at least one common wall, or maybe very small houses.)

Town Planning Manager James Dickhoff fields questions and comments from the audience at a February 9, 2017, gathering to discuss smaller minimum lot sizes within the town limits.

In the new R-22 districts, the smallest allowable lot size would be 1,875. This means that a person purchasing a standard 7,500 square foot parcel in downtown would be allowed to subdivide the parcel into four equal, smaller lots, and sell them individually, with or without a dwelling on each new parcel.

In the exist R-12 district, a property owner is currently allowed to construct two dwellings, but they must own both buildings. Under the amended LUDC, they will be allowed to sell half their lot, with or without a home on each new parcel.

A visitor to Archuleta County might have the impression that we have quite a bit of undeveloped land in the community, and they might wonder why the Town government is going to some lengths to reduce its minimum lot sizes, in some cases to a quarter of what they are right now.

Don’t we have plenty of land, here in Archuleta County? Enough for everyone who might want to live here… in the middle of nowhere?

Several of the people who attended last night’s meeting expressed concerns about this proposed ordinance, suggesting that the end result would be an ‘overcrowded’ downtown, full of tacky little houses crammed too close together. One or two people suggested that this change would mainly benefit the construction industry.

What is the Town thinking?

To answer that question, let’s take a detour into the realm of ideas. Specifically, let’s consider the idea that small is beautiful.

America was going through some rough times, back in 1979. The price of petroleum had begun to rise sharply, and would ultimately double — partly in response to the revolution in Iran, but also as a result of marketing decisions made by the oil industry and supported by the Carter administration. During a speech in July of that year, Jimmy Carter told us to turn our thermostats down and bundle up. The oil industry profits during this period of suffering were impressive.

A couple of years before the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter, a book by a noted British economist hit the New York Times Bestsellers List. The book, written by E. F. Schumacher, bore a rather curious title, compared to many other books written by professional economists: Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.

In fact, it was a curious title in its own right, considering that “small” refers to relative size, while “beautiful” is a term meant to describe a certain spiritual experience.

To judge by its ‘Bestseller’ status, Mr. Schumacher’s book attracted a loyal following among the American people, with statements like this, carefully glazed with an ironic tone:

“One of the most fateful errors of our age is the belief that ‘the problem of production’ has been solved. Not only is this belief firmly held by people remote from production and therefore professionally unacquainted with the fast — it is held by virtually all the experts, the captains of industry, the economic manager in the governments of the world, the academic and not-so-academic economists, not to mention the economic journalists.

“They may disagree in many things but they all agree that the problem of production has been solved; that mankind has at last come of age. For the rich countries, they say, the most important task now is ‘education for leisure’ — and for the poor countries, the ‘transfer of technology.’

“That things are not going as well as they ought to be going, must be due to human wickedness…”

One of Mr. Schumacher’s main concerns was with — not human wickedness — but with a curious and unfortunate tendency to view Spaceship Earth was an unlimited source of raw materials. It was obvious to economist Schumacher, back in 1973, that petroleum, for example, was a limited resource and should be consumed, like any limited resource, in a careful and thoughtful manner.

America was not treating petroleum as a limited resource in 1973, until the Arab Oil Embargo suddenly caused long lines at gas stations and an uncomfortable lack of heating oil for homes and businesses. Possibly that event, timed with the release of Mr. Schumacher’s book, Small is Beautiful, helps explain the book’s ‘bestseller’ status.

Four decades later, the Baby Boomers are heading into retirement — at least, the ones who have sufficient retirement income — with a vague memory of those difficult years during the 1970s, when we learned a little something about limited resources.

It’s a rather vague memory, however. The size of the typical American home — and the size of its appetite for heating fuels and electricity — has expanded greatly since 1970, when an average home measured about 1,500 square feet.  (They were less than 1,000 square feet back when the Baby Boomers were being born.)

Our American homes now average about 2,350 square feet. But our average family size is smaller than in 1970.

Read Part Two…

Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.