MODESTO — The next chapter in Modesto's battle over farmland and sprawl will open Tuesday, possibly leading to a citywide vote on urban limits.
Denny Jackman, a former councilman and longtime advocate for controlled growth, is raising the idea of a boundary beyond which Modesto would find it difficult to build houses in the next 30 years. He wants land north of town some of the most fertile on Earth preserved for farming.
Meanwhile, Modesto Chamber of Commerce leaders are gearing up for a broad campaign to promote prosperity. It could influence the city's effort to draw up a new general plan, which guides growth, and the chamber wants to address roads and job creation.
Chamber leaders say their vision is not ready to be unveiled and that it does not conflict with Jackman's, which would allow housing proposed in northeast Modesto's Tivoli area, as well as on poorer soil to its east. Jackman's proposal would not restrict business development, a key concern of the chamber.
Construction of new houses has taken a nose dive since the recession, from 13,248 permits issued in Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Merced counties in 2005 to 1,221 last year. Home builders have no problem being steered to less desirable soil but categorically denounce urban limits, an industry spokesman said.
Other areas north of Modesto and south of Kiernan Avenue, once eyed for thousands of future houses, would remain orchards and fields under Jackman's proposal. Continuing to irrigate there would help replenish a valuable groundwater source, he says.
An urban limit would embrace "two strong values: directing housing to lesser soils while preventing sprawl on superior soils, and retaining job creators," Jackman said. "This does so much good without doing much harm (to home builders)."
If approved, the proposal could doom housing envisioned near Salida if Modesto were to annex the town, as urged by Mayor Garrad Marsh and opposed by many Salidans favoring independence. Marsh covets Salida's prime access to Highway 99 for future industry.
Marsh and Jackman sponsored Measure E, a 2008 initiative embraced by voters across the county that restricts subdivisions in unincorporated areas.
The area has a history of other anti-sprawl activism:
Modesto voters approved Measures A and M in 1979 and 1997, respectively, requiring advisory votes of the people before extending sewers into growth areas. Voters in 2009 said "no" when asked about the Kiernan-Carver and Hetch Hetchy areas south of Kiernan, which are targeted by Jackman's proposal.
Stanislaus leaders in 2007 adopted an agricultural element with a requirement that developers preserve an equal amount of farmland elsewhere when building houses. Home builders sued, but the county prevailed.
In September, the Stanislaus Local Agency Formation Commission approved farmland preservation rules when cities want to grow.
California's most successful anti-sprawl movements have combined these elements with urban limits, strong conservation easements and restrictions on ranchettes, said Ed Thompson of the American Farmland Trust. In a January study, the organization said the valley lost nearly 100,000 acres of high-quality farmland from 1990 to 2008.
Mayors of Stanislaus County's nine cities hoped to head off the LAFCo rules last year by promoting urban limits beyond which no city could grow without approval from voters. Some cities proposed ridiculously large growth areas, Oakdale and Patterson leaders dragged their feet, and the drive fizzled.
John Beckman, chief executive officer at the Building Industry Association of the Great Valley, said his group opposes all growth lines.
"The city of Modesto has done a good job directing growth in a well-thought-out, reasonable manner without need of an urban limit line," Beckman said. Jackman's proposal, he said, "seems redundant when you're already doing the right thing."
The proposal would not restrict farmworker housing and could be set aside if Modesto gets in trouble with state officials for not producing enough affordable housing.
Two parts could be changed, Jackman said: The council might want to change boundaries or the number of future houses that would trigger a citywide vote, now set at 10.
Patrick Kelly, the city's planning director, said the council Tuesday could direct planning commissioners to consider urban limits May 6 and forward recommendations for a subsequent council meeting.
Meanwhile, chamber officials quietly have been soliciting support for their vision among various serv-ice clubs and organizations, including the public-private Stanislaus Economic Development & Workforce Alliance. The chamber hopes to present it to the City Council on May 28, said Craig Lewis, who is spearheading the effort.
"There is nothing in conflict" with Jackman's proposal, said former councilman Brad Hawn, who heads the chamber's land-use focus. Jackman's urban limits would not restrict industry north of Pelandale and Claratina avenues, Hawn said, adding, "I'm not willing to give up prime farmland for houses, but I will for jobs."
Jobs is the sole focus of Chris Murphy, the chamber's transportation champion.
"We need with a capital N-E-E-D to connect to the greater world," Murphy said. "It's all about bringing more jobs to town, taking advantage of the wonderful agriculture we live in and connecting us to the rest of the planet."
Lewis said a regional push to attract food production jobs in the 1950s and '60s was wildly successful. Modesto should come up with a "next-generation" drive for something else, he said, that everyone can get behind.
"Are we going to try to make it better, or leave?" Lewis said. "We're so far behind because no one has taken the bull by the horns and said, 'We're going to do this.' We want to give people hope and promise and an excitement to be in this county, instead of persistent unemployment."
Jeff Grover, chairman of the Alliance board, said officers prefer a regional approach to one focused mostly on Modesto.
County Supervisor Bill O'Brien, also an alliance officer, said, "It's great that people finally are talking about what they want Modesto to look like.
"I don't care who gets the credit," he added. "Let's get a vision."
The Modesto City Council meets at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in the basement chamber at Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St.
On the Net: www.modestogov.com/sirepub/ mtgviewer.aspx?meetid=549&doctype=AGENDA.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2390.