STANISLAUS COUNTY — What should Stanislaus County look like in 20 years?
We'll have more people perhaps 200,000 more than the 514,453 who live here now.
But where will they live and work? Should we focus on apartments with jobs and train stations a short walk away, or continue to sprawl onto farmland?
Could a better regional vision encourage vibrant downtowns and exercise instead of driving, maybe reducing obesity and smog?
The possibilities are fascinating for a discipline planning that sometimes isn't.
For the first time in county history, planners have crafted four specific visions of how we might grow by 2035, ranging from traditional sprawl to fairly compact housing. Each scenario features lots of details affecting our lives.
And they want to know what you think, either at public meetings or via online voting.
The four choices: (a href="http://media.modbee.com/smedia/2013/08/25/07/51/Gw5SV.So.11.pdf" target="_blank">Click here to see graphic.)
Stick with sprawl policies that have chewed away at prime farmland.
Affirm "general plan" growth policies developed individually in recent years by the county and its nine cities; most call for less sprawl.
Embrace a moderate shift toward higher density, with smaller lots and more apartments.
Even more ambitious change: Policies would encourage vitality in downtowns and along important streets, with a mix of shops and offices topped by housing units, and virtually no sprawl at cities' edges.
"We would love as many people as possible to weigh in," said Kendall Flint of Flint Strategies, a consulting team hired by Stanislaus leaders to help develop the countywide planning document.
Taking the middle road
Since the Valley Vision Stanislaus scenarios were unveiled a couple of weeks ago, middle-of-the-road options seem most popular, Flint said. That means people lean toward more compact neighborhoods than usual, but don't want to be crammed in like some places in the Bay Area or Europe.
"We're going to have to get used to the fact that housing has to get a lot more dense," Scott Calkins of Modesto said at a recent Stanislaus Council of Governments meeting. Better planning provides hope that future generations will enjoy open space and fresh produce, he said.
Jim Anderson of Oakdale said people ought to be able to choose housing types and not be forced into compact quarters.
The exercise feels similar to the Blueprint process in 2009, when debates focused on increasing density. Feedback then favored compact communities, but elected officials from Lodi to Bakersfield adopted compromise guidelines in a symbolic move because the goals were not mandatory.
Enthusiasm among office holders in the valley's north end at the time was minimal. San Joaquin County leaders refused to produce a countywide goal; Stanislaus leaders did little more, opting to present whatever growth plans already were in place for the county and its cities.
The current Valley Vision Stanislaus effort also presents density choices, ranging from the historic trend of 7.8 homes per acre to 13.2.
But Valley Vision goes much deeper into other aspects of growth affecting lives.
For example, under the most ambitious scenario, people might expect to spend less time in traffic, and many more would take advantage of trains and buses. Also, slightly more people would live within a half-mile of parks, and more low-income and minority families would live closer to transit stations, Valley Vision predicts.
A shift in housing scenarios
Regular houses built under past policies make up 70 percent of housing, with apartments and other multifamily units comprising the other 30 percent. Current plans would slide the ratio toward multifamily units, while a more compact goal could result in an even split. The most ambitious scenario would reduce regular houses to 40 percent of new production, Valley Vision says.
Consultants have attached numbers to help crystallize options. For example, families earning less than $50,000 a year typically can afford 28 percent of homes, but that could rise to 38 percent under the most ambitious scenario.
Other analyses show predictions on traffic congestion, bicycling, greenhouse gas emissions and money available for street repairs.
Some measures, however, suggest little or no difference among the four options.
For example, the rate of injury accidents for every 100,000 miles of travel could dip from 30.87 to 30.27 under the most compact housing scenario. No change would be expected to the percentage of homes near transportation corridors or the county's ratio of jobs to homes under any of the options. And the county expects to meet air quality standards regardless of which guidelines are adopted.
For people with specific interests, the four scenarios can be compared in terms of economic vitality, social equity, mobility, health, roadway maintenance, environmental quality and sustainable development.
Public asked to weigh in
At public workshops in Patterson and Oakdale over the past couple of weeks, people have steered away from extremes, Flint said. The third and final workshop, where regular people can share opinions and "vote" on preferences, starts at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Ceres Community Center, 2701 Fourth St.
An audience member at Wednesday's StanCOG meeting asked why Valley Vision did not present a public workshop in Modesto, the county seat and by far the largest of its nine cities.
Officials offered one workshop each on the county's east and west sides, and "Ceres, we believe, covers the central county," said Carlos Yamzon, StanCOG's executive director.
His staff also is in the middle of a round of presentations to city councils and planning commissions, although audiences there are not normally polled. The meetings wrap up this week at 5:30 p.m. Monday in Ceres, 2701 Fourth St.; 7 p.m. Monday in Hughson, 7018 Pine St.; and 6 p.m. Wednesday in the basement chamber at Modesto's Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St.
An option is Valley Vision's virtual workshop, where people can study the four scenarios and weigh in with mouse clicks. Go online to www.valleyvisionstanislaus.com/scenarios-workshop.html.
Outreach has extended to Modesto High School, where some 500 students have analyzed the four proposals and provided input.
Eventually, the Stanislaus vision would meld with others produced by seven counties across the San Joaquin Valley.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2390.
THE NEXT STEPS
Armed with feedback from polling and public meetings, the Stanislaus Council of Governments composed of office holders from throughout the county on Sept. 18 will debate the four options and vote on a preference. That will kick off another round of gathering public comments and an environmental study, followed by StanCOG's policy board considering adoption of an official Valley Vision Stanislaus plan in March.