Rant, reprise*

I started writing this morning, and it sounded vaguely familiar, so I hunted around and found I'd already said this.  So here it is again.

I started working in this field, land use regulation, because I believe in it. I believe in it as one of the main ways to preserve the quality of our natural areas, and life in general.  Not in an iPod kind of way, but in a, ‘there’s not toxic stuf in the water’ kind of way, and there are other species that can make it besides humans, and we can imagine life persisting into the future.

An unanticipated side effects of regulation is that it ramps up property values, and sort of keeps a class system going. When there’s a lot of regulation, there’s more cost, and when there’s more cost, lots of people get left out. But I can’t quite think about that right now, because I have to stay on this train for a few more years.

I like to think that what I do matters: dealing with one landowner at a time. Taking abuse about a) anything any branch of any government has ever done wrong; b) land use regulations that are costly or inconvenient; c) things that cost too much in general, be it taxes, permits, or anything else that’s been purchased in the past 10 years, and d) me in particular.

When I first started, a co-worker commented, “I haven’t been yelled at this much since I left home.”  Over time, I’ve gotten better at not getting too bogged down.  Exhale. Lot’s of people have totally legitimate complaints and frustrations; other people seem to be just angry, tiny people.

And, like all lines in the sand, most conflict arises when you get close to that line. If a kid asks to stay up all night, that’s a no-brainer. If they ask to stay up five minutes past their bedtime, well, that’s not such a big deal, is it? How about 10 minutes? How about 10 minutes, but they got the 5 extra minutes last night and didn’t clean their room like they promised, and trust is rather low? That’s the stuff of it. But, rather than being the final say, as a parent is, there are bosses, managers, directors, The Executive, and council members who can always say, sheesh, you’re being awfully strict now, aren’t you? Ten minutes? Lighten up, already. But once the line gets wavery, it just gets harder and harder to hold it at all, because there is no horizon anymore.

This week, I was invited to conduct a site visit by one of our partners at a government organization that basically defines itself as, “Not The County.” (They actually say that in their introduction, “Hi, I’m _____, and I’m Not with the County.”)  I was invited to join him because, “the landowner hates the County.” Um, awesome, sign me up. But I went, the way I do.

When I’d been to the property 6 years ago, when it was mostly forested, with a few fields, and was a lovely little refuge in the suburbs. Now, an enormous 6-bedroom rambler, with a huge paved area around it, a six car garage, and a driveway that’s like, half a mile long has been built. The purpose of our visit was to help them obtain tax relief, because they are going to be farming.

Hmm, I asked, “what kind of farming?” “They’re going to let someone cut hay every year.” Right. That’s agriculture, for sure. At my house, I do this too, but I call it “Not cutting the grass very often.”

We arrive, and as I introduce myself (“I am with the County…”), a look passes between the couple, and they say, yeah, your name is familiar.

And we all know why its familiar, it’s because we were lashed together for a while in permitting hell, which went on even longer than usual because they fought every freakin’ requirement.

As we’re walking around, I ask the woman about her kids. She has five, she says. Three of their own, and 2 that they “acquired.” We walk around their property, talking about how to grow hay, all of us pretending this is for real. We pretend they aren’t one of the people who got into a really big mortgage really late in the game, when their income came from something strange and unimpressive (it’s not a blimpie sub franchise, but if you guessed that, you’d be generally on the right track). We pretend that they are actually farmers, and it makes sense for them to participate in a tax relief program to protect agriculture. The woman wants to talk more about her kids, which is charming and distracting at the same time, but I go along with it.

I try to take it seriously. “Hey, Mr. Not With The County, they should probably get chickens here. Don’t you think this would be a good site for that?”

As we’re walking around, we startle a garter snake from his sunning spot, and the manly homeowner gives a girly squeal. To my credit, I don’t laugh, but I want to, even though I’ve been known to have the same response to being startled by a snake.

“How about an orchard? That would be good here, don’t ya think, Mr. Not With the County? Probably bees too?” But strangely, the wife is getting sort of interested.

“You think? You think chickens would be a good idea? The kids might like that.” Mr. Not with the County gives me that look, like sheesh. You were just supposed to come take the heat, not freakin’ come up with stuff.

We get close to the wetland, and the buffer has all gone to blackberries, the way disturbed areas do. “It would be good if you could remove these, and replant with native plants,” I suggest. The man looks at Mr. Not With the County, and says, “The County is always telling us what to do. But do they help with any of it? No. What exactly do I get for all my taxes?”

Mr. Not with the County responds the way he always does, ‘Hey, I’m not with the County…” I start laughing, because everyone is so true to form.

“Oh,” I say cheerfully, “That barb’s for me! Bring it on.”

He looks surprised, but I keep going. “I’ll tell you what you get for your taxes. You get fire protection, and if you call 9-1-1 they’ll find you really fast with a state of the art defibrillator, and you get roads that come way out here that are reasonably safe and drive-able, and you get the assurance that a meat rendering factory won’t be constructed next door to your little Shangri-la, and neither will a big shopping mall. Oh, and your neighbors septic system is built to a standard, and their sewage probably won’t be cascading all over your land. And if you walk over to that stream in the fall, you’ll see salmon. That’s some of what you get.” I don’t usually do The Rant, but I’m in a particularly good mood, and can say it all without rancor, just as a cheery fact, in the same way I tell them they should control the bull thistle in the hay field.

“Oh, sorry, he says, and looks genuinely sheepish, and his wife is looking down, but chuckling just a tiny bit. As we walk back to our cars, the woman tells me how proud she is of being such a good land steward. I concur, and say she ought to be proud. Mr. Not with The County gives me a look, like “wtf? These people?” But I do think, whatever, if she’s proud of being a steward, good for her, she’s more likely to actually be a steward if she thinks she’s one. I think I learned that from C., whom I overheard telling her then-3 year old, “sure, I can trust you to carry my car keys.” Which seemed like a good message to send.

She gives me a hug as she goes inside. She tells me she has MS, and can’t stay outside bear the heat.

Mr. Not With The County invites me to tag along while he retrieves a temperature sensor from an ag ditch in the valley, which of course I do. Data slut. We paw around in the stream for a long time, trying to find this tiny film canister-sized thing, to no avail, but its still ok because it’s a gorgeous day, and there are tons of fish darting about. While we’re digging around, the landowner starts walking towards us, preceded by his three angry dogs.

While the dogs are snarling and charging towards us, Mr. NWTC says, “Hey Bets, make something up, will ya? We don’t have permission to be here.” Grrr, another setup. I’ve pretty much learned that when a landowner makes no effort to call off his angry dogs, the conversation isn’t gonna go down very well, but it isn’t so terrible after all. Before he can say “get the hell off my land”, I tell him what beautiful dogs he has, and how surprised we were to see all of the fish in the stream, and some of them seemed to be Chinook, in fact. I made that up, I can’t tell a Chinook from any other fish when its just a little darting shadow. “You have some amazing Chinook rearing habitat, I say. It all goes better than I imagined; at least he doesn’t pull out a gun. He isn’t exactly friendly, but no one gets hurt.

All of this brings me to the point, which is, what I’d really like to have is a job that’s more obvious. Like, leaving jugs of water in the Arizona desert. It seems like the people you’d be trying to help would actually get it, like, duh, a basic need, water. Thanks, I sure was thirsty! They wouldn’t be all, “fuck you, you can’t make me drink this water, fucking government can’t tell me what to do.”

I guess I started thinking about this because I have to give that presentation to Da Man and his Big Important Friends tomorrow, and it seems like a set up.  We'll see how that goes. I'm not sure if I'll bother with the scarf.


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