Thursday, August 16, 2007

Alamar Ranch Again

I've mentioned previously the controversy about Alamar Ranch, a residential treatment school that is trying to set up operations in a rural part of Boise County. Some of the neighbors don't want it there.

Last night, my wife, my daughter, and I attended the second Boise County Planning & Zoning Commission hearing about this. The neighbors hired an attorney to represent their interests. I am sure that he thought he was being slick and effective at manipulation.* I find it hard to believe the Commission was stupid enough to be taken in by his tactics--but perhaps I'm giving them too much credit. They did finally vote 3-3 (one commissioner recused himself) on the request for a Conditional Use Permit--which means that Alamar Ranch now has to appeal to the County Board of Commissioners.

The Philosophy of Planning & Zoning

When I was younger, I found grand ideas and principles mesmerizing. The older I have become, the more I have seen that grand ideas and principles can often be very useful models, but the complexity of the real world and the variability of human abilities and foibles often means that a strict adherence to ideas--any ideas--can lead to silly or destructive results.

Land use, planning, zoning is one such example. As a grand idea, I don't think there should be restrictions on how you use your land, except those that you voluntarily accept as part of deed restrictions. If there is a problem of external effects (pollution, traffic, noise), well, injured parties should file suit against the polluter. If someone can figure out how to operate a slaughterhouse in a residential neighborhood without smells, noise, offal, then why should anyone care?

I can imagine a way that this could work--with underground tunnels bringing in cattle and sending out steaks, big air filtration systems to deal with the smells, lots of sound insulation, and little nuclear reactor in the basement to power everything. If this sounds like something out of L. Neil Smith's The Probability Broach (1981), now available online as a graphic novel--well, that's my point. Lots of things are possible in a science fiction novel, but the real world tends to be a bit more difficult.

In practice, the external effects are sometimes so horrendous that damages after the fact can't compensate for the injuries. For example, if a lead smelting operation pollutes the ground water and air, causing birth defects in dozens of kids. Yes, you can buy the silence of the families, but the damage done to those kids is permanent, and unrepairable.

Sometimes the external effects are so minor from any single property owner that it simply does not make sense to file suit. How much air pollution does a single property owner burning trash upwind from you make? Not much--and it is impractical to file suit against that one owner. But if thousands are doing so, the cumulative effect is quite destructive--but the cost of filing suit against thousands of trash burners--especially when you can't identify each and every one of them--just makes this an absurd exercise.

When I was younger, most of what I saw of planning and zoning was in the Los Angeles basin--where the level of detail and control being exerted made libertarian ideas about this quite attractive. Since I moved to Idaho, what I have generally seen of the planning process is a lot of people making genuine attempts to resolve real world problems. You might have a philosophical objection to the process, but questions of traffic flow, blocking of sunlight, adequate parking within a development--I just haven't seen a lot of completely absurd concerns or solutions for most development proposals up here. As long as we are discussing relatively unemotional matters such as traffic, noise, property values, you can get have a polite and reasonably intelligent conversation.

But when it comes to personal safety--the NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) goes ballistic. As I've mentioned with respect to Booth House, a homeless family shelter in Boise, and this recent situation near Idaho City with Alamar Ranch, there's a lot of fear--and intelligent conversation seems to stop.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Alamar Ranch (Continued)

I mentioned the other day that my daughter spoke at the Boise County Planning Commission hearing as well. Here's what she had to say. I strongly encourage you to read it in full, to see how important it is to not give up on a troubled teenager.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Alamar Ranch

I attended a meeting of the Boise County Planning and Zoning Commission last night. Alamar Ranch is a proposed residential treatment school for troubled teenaged boys. There has been some opposition to the project. The supposed objection had to do with increased demands on emergency services, but enough of the discussion in the local newspaper (the Idaho World) and at the hearing last night makes it clear that the real concern driving the opposition is fear that the boys that would be treated at Alamar Ranch would be there just to run away, steal cars, rape the local girls, and in general, turn Idaho City into the next Oakland. (Here you can see pictures of the historic, scenic part of Idaho City. There's no pictures of the rundown, trailer park portions of town.)

Anyway, it was a large crowd that showed up--perhaps 200 people or more. Considering that total population of Boise County in 2005 was 7,535, that's pretty impressive. This was a hot topic.

The Planning Commission staff report was clearly supportive of it, especially because Alamar Ranch has bent over backwards to satisfy every possible concern. The fire department wanted another emergency entry and exit road into the property. No problem. Alamar Ranch pointed to existing emergency service uses in similar facilities, and that they were minimal. They also offered to compare the emergency services use of any 37 home subdivision in the county, and reimburse the county for any emergency service requests above that baseline.

There were concerns that boys at Alamar Ranch could demand the Bogus Basin School District provide services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004; Alamar Ranch put in writing that they would be taking care of all such needs of the boys it will be treating, and would reimburse the district for expenses that might fall on them. Alamar Ranch also agreed to contribute $500 per new student to Bogus Basin School District for any children of Alamar Ranch employees that were new additions to the schools.

An economics professor from Northwestern Nazarene University shared the results of his economic analysis of the likely effects of Alamar Ranch. It would add about $800,000 to $1,500,000 a year to the local economy, because of the number of jobs. Since a lot of these jobs are pretty high paying compared to the average annual wage of $23,862 in the county in 2005, this would probably lift the Idaho City area a good bit.

Even something as trivial as exterior lighting: Alamar Ranch will use full cutoff light fixtures to preserve the dark skies of Boise County.

Contrary to my fears, quite a number of people turned out to speak in favor of Alamar Ranch. Some of them were neighbors; one was a competitor! There's a roughly similar facility in Garden Valley (another community in Boise County) that treats troubled teenaged boys and girls, and the director told of the enormous change in the lives of the troubled kids that they have helped. Another speaker was a psychiatrist from Boise who treats Idaho City kids, but because of the enormous distance that they have to travel, a fair number are medicated rather than provided the individual and family therapy that they need. Having Alamar Ranch in Idaho City would put at least one psychiatrist and many social workers and counselors in the community, where they would be available to provide services independent of Alamar Ranch.

One woman spoke of having to drive 12 hours to southern Utah each way to visit her daughter, who is in a similar program, because there is a critical shortage of space in programs like this.

Here's what I had to say:
My name is Clayton Cramer. I live at 36 Sunburst Road, Horseshoe Bend.

I don’t live in this part of the county, so I really don’t know the fine details of the concerns about traffic or fire protection. But I do know that a lot of what I have seen expressed in letters to the Idaho World sounds like prejudice against residential treatment schools, and the troubled teens that will be housed at Alamar Ranch.

So, why do I care about Alamar Ranch? A few years back, my daughter Hilary was a teenager. I think every teenager drives his or her parents crazy, but this was a bit beyond that—my wife and I were very worried that our daughter might not live to adulthood. With great reluctance, and a lot of tears, we sent our daughter from California to a residential treatment school in Utah, after which Alamar Ranch is patterned.

Our daughter was away for 6 ½ months. We visited her every few weeks, injecting vast quantities of money into the local economy each time. It was astonishing to see how rapidly our daughter recovered, while continuing her education. When she was 15, I was worried about whether she would live to 18. Instead, she came home, and finished high school. Shortly thereafter we moved to Idaho. Last year she graduated from the University of Idaho—and brought back a good husband as well. Now she and her husband are working on their master’s degrees at Boise State University.

I mentioned that Alamar Ranch is patterned on the residential treatment school where my daughter went in Utah. How do I know that? Because my daughter’s primary therapist there is Alamar Ranch’s executive director, Amy Jeppesen. What a small world we live in! I have tremendous confidence in Ms. Jeppesen, and I have seen the miracle that she performed with my daughter—and I believe very strongly in the importance of residential treatment schools for kids whose problems can’t be handled in an outpatient setting.

If there are legitimate complaints about Alamar Ranch, I implore you to find ways to work these concerns out with the neighbors. Every unnecessary roadblock that a planning agency puts in the way of a residential treatment school is really an obstacle in the path of helping a kid who is in trouble, become a success like my daughter. What Alamar Ranch will do for troubled teenaged boys is not just a business—it is, for some families, the last hope before a child spirals down into destruction.

One woman I spoke to afterwards told me that she was very impressed with what I had to say; "I think you changed my mind about this."

My daughter spoke about how the very similar program at New Haven Residential Treatment Center changed her life. As soon as she has statement up on her blog, I'll link to it.

UPDATE: My daughter's statement is here. No matter how hard it may be, don't give up on your troubled teenager.