Jewish World Review July 9, 2003 / 9 Tamuz, 5763

Thomas Sowell

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"Saving" Bay Meadows

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | In typical California style, T-shirts have begun to appear with the slogan, "Save Bay Meadows."

What are Bay Meadows? A lovely pristine natural vista? Not really. Bay Meadows is an old race track that has seen better days, both physically and financially, and is scheduled to be torn down.

Who would have thought that people who play the horses would become sentimental about the place where they lost their money? Actually, this too is not quite what it might seem to be.

The drive to save Bay Meadows is being spearheaded by a woman who never went to a single race at Bay Meadows in all the 19 years that she has lived in San Mateo County, where the track is located. Why then the concern, the angst and the T-shirts?

Like so many campaigns to "save" this or that, the campaign to save Bay Meadows is as phony as a three-dollar bill. An old race track is not the issue.

The real issue is that there are plans to build housing and offices on the vast acreage currently taken up by the race track, its stables and its parking lot. More than half of San Mateo County is already off-limits to building anything.

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It is not a question of nature or beauty. You couldn't build the Taj Mahal in San Mateo County. The objection to tearing down an old nondescript race track is about preventing anything from being built in its place, least of all apartments or town houses or whatever else passes for "high-density housing" in California.

"We are against the character of the city changing," said one of the founders of the Save Bay Meadows Citizens Group.

Just what is the character of San Mateo County and how might it change if -- forgive the word -- developers got hold of the sacred soil on which the race track now stands?

San Mateo County is an affluent liberal community where most people are home-owners, rather than renters, and where both housing prices and rents are astronomical. There are some nice homes in San Mateo County, though you would never mistake it for Beverly Hills or Malibu. It is not that there are so many grand homes in the county, but that ordinary homes command grand prices because of severe restrictions on building.

San Mateo County has 707,000 people, fewer than 25,000 of whom are black. Moreover, the black population of San Mateo County fell by nearly 10,000 in one decade, even though the total population of the county rose by more than 50,000. The rising average age in the county suggests that families with children are finding the housing prices too rich for their blood, just as blacks do.

Now that we know something about the specific realities behind the lovely vague phrase "the character of the community," we can understand why people who don't even go to race tracks are out trying to "save" a race track.

We might also note that not all those who want to "save" wetlands or some supposedly endangered species are being straight about their reasons for fighting development. For many, this is a way to keep out ordinary people from the enclaves of the elite.

What the much-despised developers might do is build housing that could be afforded by people not as far up the income scale as those currently living in San Mateo County. That is why developers are so despised.

Not just in California, but all across the country, those who want to prevent other people -- and especially other kinds of people -- from living in the community where they live have created all sorts of red herring arguments and restrictive laws to deny others the same rights that they claim for themselves.

Since the 14th Amendment requires all people to be treated the same, why should what one group wants be enacted into law to over-ride what other people want? If those who are supposedly gung-ho for Bay Meadows want to enter the bidding for the property, let them pit their money against the money of those who want a place to live.

Current residents in San Mateo County have higher incomes than average. But, in the aggregate, people with average incomes have more money and that might well lead to more of that "affordable housing" that affluent liberal communities talk so much about and do so much to prevent.

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JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, "Controversial Essays." (Sales help fund JWR.)

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