SodaCanyonRoad | Fact-based decisions

Fact-based decisions

Bill Hocker | Jul 19, 2018 on: Napa Strategic Plan

"We'd like to see something that is more data-driven." Sarah Sanders on Climate Report, 11/28/18

Lately, the wine industry lobbyists that comment at Planning Commission and BOS meetings will invariably slip in their interest in "fact-based decision making". It was a principal bullet point in the industry's No on C campaign, in trying to make the implication that further protection of the watersheds and their aquifers from over-exploitation for vineyard and winery development was somehow not supported by facts.

The emphasis on "fact-based decisions" and the denigration of the initiative process as a "blunt instrument" by government and industry opponents in the Measure C campaign has seemed to me to be code for industry and government control of the planing process rather than the "emotion-based decision" making by residents that is an inherent part of the initiative process.

The "facts" that industry and government officials tout are conclusions in reports made by technical experts. They are not, in fact, "facts", but are interpretations of quantities of data given certain assumptions. They are expert opinions. As we have seen, where opponents can afford their own experts, as qualified as those hired by the developer, very different opinions often emerge when the data is subjected to different, but no less valid, assumptions. Which opinions are to be used in decisions become the stuff of lawsuits, as the county knows in numerous projects being challenged in court.

Government and developers like "fact-based" decisions. When impacted citizens complain about the harm projects may cause, developers can tout the "fact" that an expert says there will be less-than-significant negative impacts. If you don't agree get your own experts. Experts, of course, cost money. Often lots of money. For the developer they are part of the cost of the project, amortized by the profits to be made. They are tax deductible. For impacted citizens, the cost of hiring experts comes from savings accounts. And they are not tax deductible. And hiring consultants is a complex undertaking they have no experience with, often needing a lawyer to guide the process, an additional expense. The truth is that developers and governments always tout and set the parameters for "fact-based" decisions not because the parameters and opinions are irrefutably true, but because the cost and the effort of refuting them is an enormous burden for any opponents wishing to challenge their projects.

The argument in this post should not be seen as an example of right-wing fact-freedom mongering. We all profess and are committed to making decisions based on reality rather than fantasy. It is an argument only that reality and the opinions of experts are not always the same thing. Were they the same, there would be no disagreement over, say, whether red wine is good for you or bad for you. And unfortunately, as we've seen in dozens of examples - think pesticides, tobacco or global warming - expert opinions often depend on the amounts of money to be made by a particular conclusion. Reality can't be held at bay forever, but it can be ignored or hidden for years with enough money given to the task. And as we've seen over and over, in Napa there is lots of money to prove that development projects, and the reality of the traffic they create, and the affordable housing and infrastructure needs they generate, and the resources they use will have a less-than-significant impact on the future of the County. The reality of those impacts, denied or mitigated away for years in "fact-based" development decisions, are now upon us.