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The End--of oil and of Erin Kuczmarski



Excellent turnout at the Colony in Raleigh last Wednesday for The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream, the docu-polemic written and directed by Toronto filmmaker Gregory Greene and brought to the Triangle by such southpaw groups as SURGE, the student environmentalists in Chapel Hill, and the Indy Media Center. Extra credit goes to the dozens who bicycled up there from Five Points, no easy task in the city made for cars.

The End and good riddance, says James Howard Kunstler at the start of it. Kunstler's the famed sprawl critic who started out by hating Atlanta, then noticed how many other cities were following in Atlanta's gasoline-soaked tracks. "The whole suburban project," he says acidly, "can be summarized pretty succinctly as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. America took all its post-war wealth and invested it in a living arrangement that has no future."

Not with oil at $60 a barrel and spiraling higher, it doesn't. But won't the Saudis--such good friends with the Bushes--just pump us some more? Enter the "peak oil" theory, and if you haven't read about it before, get ready for lots of it, because Matt Simmons, Kunstler's co-commentator in The End, can't be written off as some granola-cruncher, and he maintains that the Saudis can't pump much more, nor can anybody else. (See for more info.)

Song sung blue, the world's approaching its "peak" of oil production per day, because all the best fields have already yielded all the best--that is, easiest to get out of the ground--oil. So says Simmons, a Houston investment banker who's financed oil deals for years and is a board member of such establishment outfits as Kerr-McGee Corp. and the Council on Foreign Relations. He's not the only one saying it. But he is the only one who's made a close study of the Saudi oilfields. He has a new book out, Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy. You can read a great take on it at

No cheap oil equals no cheap suburban living equals disaster for Raleigh, where the whole so-called comprehensive plan was written with sprawl in mind--nice sprawl, to give the developers who wrote it their due, with lots of cul-de-sacs.

The latest evidence: Sperling's Best Places measured commuting costs in 84 metro areas, taking into account gas prices, miles driven and congestion delays, to determine which deserved the title of "most expensive city for driving." Raleigh-Durham finished ninth-worst, at $4,117 per family. Infamous L.A. followed in 10th place. The worst? Atlanta, of course, at $4,573.

Which brings me to the topic of the day, which is--are you thinking globally while getting ready to act locally?--the Raleigh city elections. Candidate filings start Friday. Election day is Oct. 11.

We've got some serious issues to look at here, peak-oilwise. And we've got a serious problem: The developers are still in charge, as they showed recently on impact fees and with the ouster of Raleigh Planning Commission Chair Erin Kuczmarski.

Kuczmarski gets necklaced. You didn't know she got the boot? Strangely, it hasn't been reported anywhere that I'm aware of, except by those crazy, anonymous guys at A former state legislator, Kuczmarski's election as planning commission chair last year--in her first term--was a sign that the smart-growth members were gaining on the developers' allies. Then she pushed through Mayor Charles Meeker's tree ordinance over the builders' objections, paving the way for council adoption, and they decided she had to go, if for no other reason than that she was making them look bad.

That much seems clear, and it was easily accomplished, because Kuczmarski, a chiropractor, was a county commissioners' appointee (since Raleigh exercises zoning jurisdiction in adjacent areas of the county, the county gets to name three of the city's 11 PC members--far too many, incidentally). The county commissioners are 5-2 Republican, so out went Democrat Kuczmarski when her two-year term expired, notwithstanding the supposed custom of retaining the good members (the ones who show up at the endless meetings for no money) for up to three terms.

What has Democratic underwear in a wad is the role of City Councilor Jessie Taliaferro in this episode. I've spoken to a half-dozen high-level Dems in the last week who are convinced that Democrat Taliaferro carried the developers' water by bad-mouthing Kuczmarski to County Commission Chair Joe Bryan, a Republican. Taliaferro denies it, claiming that all she did--after seeing Bryan at a public function--was arrange for Kuczmarski's attendance record (which turned out to be good) to be sent to him. Bryan says Taliaferro didn't say much, but did "raise some issues" about Kuczmarski's performance that were, ultimately, "not a big factor" in his decision to vote for somebody else.

The key thing for him, Bryan says, is that Kuczmarski never called him to say she wanted to be reappointed, while the three men who were named instead all actively campaigned for their spots. (She was replaced along with two other members, Claude Trotter and Jack Reed, both of whom had hit the three-term limit.)

Bryan's a straight shooter, so here's the bottom line as best I can figure it: Jessie knew Erin was in trouble, or should have known it, but she didn't speak up for Erin, nor did she warn Erin of the need to speak up for herself.

Since Jessie's never made any bones about being aligned with the developers, it almost doesn't matter to Raleigh's progressives whether she lobbied Bryan or not--the Republicans were doing Erin in, and, best case, she watched it happen.

Anyway, that's what Esther Hall, former council candidate and wife of U.S. Rep. Brad Miller, decided after making some calls. Hall was going to host a fundraiser for Jessie, who's seeking re-election, the same as Hall's doing for Councilor Joyce Kekas, a candidate at-large. But now she's not going to host it, because Jessie failed to protect her fellow Democrat, and a fellow female Democrat at that. Says Hall: "Jessie needs to decide whether she's really a Democrat, and I told her that."

That's mild compared to belowthebeltline's response, which was to declare war on Taliaferro. "A Progressive can only take so much sitting still," the mysterious Lumsford Lane (a pseudonym) wrote. "In rinky-dink local politics, chucking Dr. Kuczmarski off the Planning Commission is the metaphorical equivalent of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor."

On the other hand, is anybody actually running against Jessie in District B? Doesn't seem that way.

Impact fees fizzle.
Want to slow the sprawl while goosing infill development nearer to the jobs, stores and--someday--transit stations in town? Try impact fees, which raise the cost of building out in the boondocks but not--if they're waived selectively--in the places you want development to go.

Democrat Meeker, who as near as we can tell will have no serious Republican opponent as he runs for a third term, is all for increasing impact fees, pointing out that they are virtually unchanged since 1987. The fee for the average new single-family house in Raleigh is only $1,152, versus a state average of $4,038 and a national average of $7,635. Why? Because the homebuilders and the realtors and their ilk want it that way.

But when Councilor Thomas Crowder, during budget talks, moved to raise $2 million via a 50 percent increase in impact fees while cutting recycling fees by a like amount, he got no second for the motion, even from Meeker.

That way, Kekas didn't have to vote on the issue and tick off either the progressives or the developers. Charles is a pragmatist--Crowder was going to get one, two or three votes, but not the needed five, so why bother?

Meeker wants Kekas to win election (she was appointed to a vacancy) as well as fellow Democrat Russ Stephenson, a planning commission member whom the mayor all but endorsed when he announced. They're the front-runners for the pair of at-large seats, along with Republican John Odom, a former council member who lost to Meeker in 2003.

Odom is running, incidentally, rumors to the contrary. The Republican strategy apparently is to run just one candidate, hoping to entice Kekas--and Taliaferro and Democrat James West--to their way of pro-developers thinking.

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