Did the foreclosure crisis teach Modesto nothing?

columns@modbee.comMay 28, 2013 

Climbing slowly from a deep recession, the usual suspects awake from hibernation and reveal they haven't learned anything.

The developers, land-use attorneys, real estate speculators and their favorite politicians are ready to get rolling. The real estate bubble popped and splattered financial misery over thousands of area residents ... well, here we go again.

Some recent headlines: Fitzpatrick Homes is planning to build 353 homes and 180 multifamily units on farmland in north Modesto. ... The county planning commission approved a plan to split the historic Willms Ranch to allow 84 ranchette homes. ... The city of Ceres approved a project to construct 3,600 new homes on hundreds of acres of productive farmland.

Last month, Stanislaus County Supervisor Dick Monteith blocked an attempt to strengthen farmland protection policies. In March, the Modesto City Council rejected a policy protecting farmland. Weeks later, the council voted to avoid a deadline putting urban housing limits before city voters in November. Why bother voters who've shown an inclination to save farmland?

Now, the Modesto Chamber of Commerce proposes an economic development plan removing thousands of acres of prime farmland from production. They'll falsely frame the choice as jobs vs. farmland. Mayor Garrad Marsh described their plan as "overreach" — an understatement.

Proving the point about "usual suspects," the major proponents include broker Craig Lewis, land-use attorney George Petrulakis and Village I developer Bill Zoslocki. See the built-in conflicts of interest?

Maybe it's time to reject advice from people who gain financially from bad planning.

A region devastated by foreclosures needs leaders who are smart about growth. The places hit hardest by the housing bubble — Phoenix, Las Vegas, Florida and the Northern San Joaquin Valley — were not known for smart growth policies. We were badly hurt, and now we're returning to the same patterns.

We're building car-dependent, long-commute neighborhoods on top of productive farmland. We're asking taxpayers to subsidize city services and infrastructure maintenance of new neighborhoods at the expense of older neighborhoods. (Developer fees, even when figured correctly, don't cover long-term costs.) We're building houses before jobs are created for the people who might live in them. And, we're returning to the corrosive influence of the building industry on local government.

Three nationally known planning experts spoke in Modesto last year. Charles Marohn from Strongtowns.org and Joe Minicozzi from Urban 3 and Peter Katz from CitiStates used different phrasing, but all three said essentially the same thing: Our typical patterns of suburban growth are economically foolish. Communities are being killed one strip mall and one housing tract at a time. Development on the edge of town bankrupts us, but redevelopment and re-investment in downtowns and existing neighborhoods is sustainable and smart.

Marohn bluntly called our pattern of development a "Ponzi scheme." New growth on the fringes gives the illusion of prosperity. But the revenues never catch up to long-term obligations: the costs of upkeep on roads, sidewalks, parks, water lines and other public services. Up front, some people do well, but later, the rest of us pay.

The recession, when growth slowed to a halt, should have been a time to re-evaluate old patterns; a time to learn from planning mistakes. But did we learn?

As the economy improves, we should demand serious changes from local leaders.

Barker lives in Modesto. Send questions or comments to columns@modbee.com.

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