Adding something as simple as a planter box can add greenery and improve the appearance of any street, but at what cost?
Photo: Pam Broviak Adding something as simple as a planter box can add greenery and improve the appearance of any street, but at what cost?

How much is a planter full of flowers worth to your town? Sure, you can figure out what the monetary cost is to set it up and maintain it, but what is the value of having the planter downtown or on a main street? Or better yet, what is the cost to your town's “quality of life” or appearance if the planter isn't there? Putting a monetary value on such assets may be difficult, but that doesn't mean their value isn't real.

The cost of that planter is real, just as the value of population growth is real, with both positive and negative effects. Although many of the costs of growth are difficult to define, some effort should be made during planning to list all the costs on every project—including the cost of doing nothing. In Pam Broviak's tale of Kendall County (page 26), the Illinois DOT saw that inaction, while not directly creating expenditures, was costing them more every day, because developers bought land that would soon be needed for roadways for the growing population.

Therefore, we need to figure out how to pay for this value we hope to create. We shouldn't expect our citizens to pay for the services needed for newcomers, but developers scream when realistic impact fees are established. In their piece on impact fees on page 39, Joel Theis and Richard Giardina argue there is no evidence that user fees have ever inhibited development. If that's the case, I think we should increase impact fees for new homes and businesses to truly reflect the cost in terms of new roads, new water treatment plants, and the hundreds of other services that all these new residents will expect. I guarantee you once they've moved in they will fight any increased taxes to pay for all the services they expect to be there in perfect working order from day one.

I read recently in Time about a move to tear down the O'Shaughnessy Dam in California to reopen the Hetch Hetchy Valley, which has been submerged for 100 years. City officials in San Francisco say this is a crazy idea, during a time when water is already in short supply and energy prices are increasing. This argument comes back to the value we assign to things. Does a free-flowing river have value? If so, is it enough to justify paying for a desalination plant to make up for the water the dam once stored?

These are difficult decisions, but ones that must be faced by public works officials and legislators alike. We need to look at all of the costs on projects, not just those on the surface. Once we know the real cost, making wise choices becomes an easier task. A planter full of flowers may seem inconsequential—until it's not there.

Bill Palmer
Editor in Chief