Most cities can do much more to stop auto-reliant sprawl

October 25, 2008 

Across the San Joaquin Valley, one of California's fastest- growing regions, cities on average are doing about half of what they might to encourage smart growth.

Fifty-six of the valley's 60 cities achieved smart growth scores of less than 70 percent, according to a comprehensive planning audit developed and conducted by The Modesto Bee in cooperation with the Great Valley Center and a class of California State University, Stanislaus, pollsters.

The resulting scorecard is designed to help people gauge whether their leaders are serious about improving communities and boosting contentment through thoughtful planning, or merely paying lip service.

Smart growth brings jobs closer to homes, promotes health and curbs pollution, experts say. And people generally are happier walking on tree-shaded streets to lush parks or shops in a village square than isolated in sprawling, drab subdivisions on the edge of town.

"A survey is a snapshot," Carol Whiteside, president emeritus of the Great Valley Center, said of the collaborative effort, nearly two years in the making. "It gives us kind of a big-picture

look and allows us to find places where we want to go deeper."

Planners and top administrators in the valley's eight counties and 60 cities provided data in late 2007 and early 2008 for the survey.

Notable findings:

Size doesn't seem to matter. The highest-scoring cities feature a mix of the valley's very smallest (Dos Palos*) and largest (Fresno, Modesto and Bakersfield). (*An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed Sanger as among the valley's smallest cities.)

Many cities are conscious about the fees they charge developers. Among nine smart growth sections, cities valleywide scored best in the category measuring whether they charge adequate fees and update them regularly, although even the best cities earned less than 90 percent.

On average, cities' design and public outreach leave much to be desired.

Whether good planning rubs off on neighbors is debatable.

Of the valley's 60 cities, the three highest-scoring -- Oakdale, Patterson and Turlock -- are in Stanislaus County, and the county seat, Modesto, tied for seventh place. Overall, Stanislaus County cities scored an average of 66.19 percent -- significantly ahead of cities in runner-up Madera County, with 57.88 percent.

Tulare's progressive streak

But cities from five other counties also made the Top 10 list, with representation from Kings (Hanford, fourth), Kern (Bakersfield, tied for fifth), Merced (Dos Palos, tied for fifth), Tulare (Dinuba, tied for seventh) and Fresno counties (Fresno, ninth and Sanger, 10th). San Joaquin and Madera counties had no city in the Top 10.

That Stanislaus County has four cities in the valley's Top 10 has little correlation with the county's own performance, however. Stanislaus placed fifth among eight counties.

Radically progressive policies adopted by forward-thinking Tulare County leaders three decades ago helped land that agency first among the eight counties. But critics say current leadership is showing signs of dismantling some of the most significant smart growth rules.

Smart growth scorecards have been used to measure planning policies in several regions across the United States, including the Bay Area. They provide "a better understanding of how the rules on the books can deliver" more livable communities, said Tim Torma, policy analyst with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Dumb growth, or traditional urban sprawl, typically features an outward-growing mass of cookie-cutter subdivisions gobbling farmland on a city's fringe. Residents rely on automobiles for trips to generic strip malls and jobs in distant places.

Experts say such growth patterns contribute to the nation's health problems by robbing people of exercise. And driving more causes air pollution, breathing disorders and climate-changing greenhouse gases.

"As air quality gets worse, the climate heats up and people become increasingly obese because they're spending more time in the car," said Judy Corbett, founder of the Local Government Commission in Sacramento. "That leads to asthma, diabetes and heart disease. Socially, we're becoming isolated from one another, spending so much time in the car rather than out in the community."

Homes near shops, offices

Smart growth principles embrace walking, bicycling and transit by incorporating a compact mix of affordable and upscale homes with stores and offices in carefully planned villages.

Ripon earned a perfect score in the survey's development category.

Benjamin Powell, 47, four years ago moved from a small Ceres rental to an attractive two-story house he bought on a truck driver's salary in Ripon, nestled among custom homes in a quiet neighborhood. The city is among few in the valley requiring developers to offer below-market prices on some units in every new subdivision.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime deal," Powell said. "We're paying less than $900 (a month) for mortgage, insurance and everything included."

Recycling downtowns, by better using services already in place, makes more sense than building redundant infrastructure in outlying areas, supporters say -- and brings some sanity to everyone's taxes.

After some five decades of encouraging auto-reliant growth, state leaders are reversing course, passing laws linking land use to health and climate change with Assembly Bill 32 and Senate Bill 375. The latter would give money to local agencies that facilitate growth close to transit centers, bringing jobs and homes closer together.

Standards shape the future

Many valley leaders have tried inserting smart growth pillars into local policies, which vary widely even among neighbors -- with varying success.

Oakdale owes its No. 1 ranking to leaders' refusal to buckle on high design, parks and farmland protection standards, despite incredible pressure from builders in boom times earlier this decade.

Patterson, whose unique downtown layout generally is well- regarded among experts, in recent years welcomed a spate of generic subdivisions on its fringe while far outpacing most other valley cities in rampant growth. But newer smart growth policies, including some requiring a healthy mix of affordable housing, should position the No. 2 city for a brighter tomorrow.

Among the newer developments in Patterson is Las Palmas Place, an affordable housing community for seniors.

"A lot (of us) couldn't afford what few apartments they have in town," said resident Murtie Coggins, 63. "If you're lucky enough to get in here, you thank your lucky stars."

Patterson planners made sure Las Palmas Place is close to stores, restaurants and services.

"We just walk across the street and they're right there," said Bea-trice Basaldua, 86.

The survey relies heavily on sustainable policies because they provide the framework that makes smart growth possible. Not measured is on-the-ground reality, theoretically resulting from policy. But reality also depends on the political will of leaders, who have broad control to ignore or uphold policy.

Readers, then, won't see reflected in these rankings the damage done by a rash of foreclosures in some highly ranked cities, including Patterson, Modesto and Newman. Neither is it apparent by its low affordability ranking that remote Avenal, a tiny city in small Kings County, has an abundance of affordable homes; its leaders haven't seen a need, so they haven't adopted such policy.

Other cities' rankings may be skewed because a representative, despite repeated requests, failed to answer all questions. For example, Stockton, with an impressive downtown renaissance and progressive reputation, stopped the audit before finishing significant portions and ended up 59th of 60.

Institutions behind previous surveys in other areas said planning audits proved to be worth the effort because they spark public dialogue and provide a flashpoint for government accountability.

The Greenbelt Alliance's 2006 award-winning Bay Area Smart Growth Scorecard "infused a sense of healthy competition on something we should all be working on," said Elizabeth Stampe, the group's communications director.

"It shined a light at how decisions we're making are affecting the entire Bay Area and everyone who lives here," she continued. "It helped local leaders -- planners, mayors, council members, supervisors -- learn how they could do better by adopting reasonable policies that other agencies already are doing."

The Bay Area's survey, like the valley's, produced lower scores than expected, Stampe said -- but gives leaders a tool for suggesting where they might seek change. "It's really valuable to have a quantitative illustration," she said.

Whiteside said scorecards also provide baseline data for future studies. A second look at the valley's policies in a couple of years would show whether we're learning and moving forward, she said.

"A survey gives us an overview of the general trends and the ability to compare ourselves against other places, both in the region and throughout the state and nation," Whiteside said. "If we don't like what we see, the point is to have a chance to go back and change it."

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.

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