Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | April 1, 2008

Echoes of past decisions

For good or ill, decisions often reverberate across centuries: That became as real to me as the magnificent stone cathedrals I recently visited during a ten-day cathedrals of Britain travel course.

In the 12th century, a dispute between two former friends – King Henry II and Thomas Becket – led to a hastily repaired fracture in the relationship between the Catholic Church and England’s monarchy that split irretrievably during Henry VIII’s reign in the 16th century. For good or ill, that split reverberates today.

In the 13th century, decisions made by King John led to the signing of the Magna Carta, the basis of modern democracy. Some of the decisions that enraged John’s subjects – who eventually forced him to sign the document – involved separation of church and state, an echo of his father King Henry II’s dispute, and unfair taxes, a harbinger of future issues.

Echoes from the Magna Carta are legion. It introduced the idea that rulers are bound by the law and the writ of habeas corpus, the right to challenge one’s detention in a court of law. Because we’re ignoring the lessons in the echoes of past decisions, both are in peril in modern-day America.

In the 18th century, King George III failed to heed the lessons in the echoes of his predecessors’ decisions and treated his colonies in the New World so badly – notably with taxation without representation – that the Revolutionary War erupted and birthed the United States of America. The results of that dispute reverberate more than two centuries later.

The Founding Fathers’ distrust of the judgment of the American people to directly elect their president enabled the election of George W. Bush at the close of the 20th century, which in turn led to his invasion of Iraq early in the 21st.

On the macro level, nearly everyone alive today will suffer or benefit from the repercussions of Bush’s decision to invade Iraq as long as we live. Our grandchildren and great-grandchildren likely won’t outlive the echoes of that decision.

On the micro level, that decision led to my receiving this greeting from a taxi driver in York as soon as he realized he had three Americans in his cab: “Right then, which of you voted for that wanker Bush?!” Two of us laughed and responded, “Not me!” and “I didn’t!” But a guilty silence emanated from the third member of our party. Finally, she mumbled apologetically, “I live in a blue state. My vote didn’t matter.” And with that, the 13th-century Magna Carta and the 18th-century’s Revolutionary War and distrust of the Founding Fathers echoed in our 21st-century taxi.

Visiting Britain’s cathedrals and studying its past steeped me in broad sweeps of history, fostered a long-view perspective of events, and influenced my reaction when I returned home to news that developers had abandoned their long quest to build thousands of homes in Coyote Valley.

The consortium of housing developers that funded the Coyote Valley Specific Plan Task Force declined to provide $2.5 million more to finish the required environmental impact report. They’d already spent $17.5 million on the task force, well over their original $10-million budget for the project.

Questionable decisions tainted the Coyote Valley Specific Plan Task Force’s work from the start: Agencies with vested interest in the project were shut out of the task force, efforts were made to circumvent wise development control provisions in San Jose’s general plan, to name just two.

Echoes of the decision to abandon Coyote Valley development – while likely not global – will be significant for our region for decades or more, for both good and ill.

On the negative side, no new population center just north of Morgan Hill’s borders means that South County businesses will not have a large new customer base. Some had hoped that a large population in Coyote Valley might make it economically feasible to reopen Morgan Hill’s long-shuttered Saint Louise Hospital. Gavilan College spent $19.2 million on land for a Coyote Valley campus that it no longer needs.

On the positive side, the dramatic environmental impacts of the development – on air quality, farmland, water supply, wildlife habitat and traffic – have been avoided. Residents no longer need to worry about dramatic effects of a doubling the student and voting population of the Morgan Hill Unified School District.

Perhaps in future decades or another century, Coyote Valley will be home to a thriving community. If it does come to pass, I hope the planners of some future Coyote Valley development will heed the lessons contained in the echoes of this failed attempt.

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