Farm Beat

Farm Beat: Density debate returns to fore

jholland@modbee.comSeptember 20, 2013 

My easiest job in the newspaper business was delivering the San Francisco Examiner as a kid.

The houses on my 27th Avenue route had zero space between them, so I could toss the 80 or so papers in no time.

High density has its advantages.

I mention this because housing density has returned as a hot topic in Stanislaus County. Advocates for putting more people on each acre say it would preserve farmland and reduce the cost of roads and other public services. Skeptics say most folks still want larger lots.

I’m not suggesting that everyone live in quarters as crowded as San Francisco. But surely we can do better than the past few decades, when low-density homes and strip malls spread across farmland, leaving downtowns to wither.

I heard a healthy debate on density at Wednesday night’s meeting of the Stanislaus Council of Governments policy board. This body, made up of county supervisors and city council members, voted 8-3 for a vision of future growth that modestly increases the number of homes per residential acre by 2035.

The vote, which could be made final in March, is not binding on local governments. But the process, known as Valley Vision Stanislaus, is a useful way of keeping this topic at the forefront.

The StanCOG staff offered four options: We could keep sprawling at the historical rate of 7.8 homes per acre. We could go with the 10 homes per acre reflected in recently updated general plans. We could aim for “moderate” density of 11.4. Or we could really pull together at 13.2.

The board chose 10 homes per acre, an idea that will go out for further environmental study and public comment.

What’s notable is that none of the dissenters fought for the first option, the old kind of sprawl. Nor did the building industry leader who spoke to the board. He favored the 10-home-per-acre option, which recognizes at least some need for higher density.

That option would allow a somewhat higher number of detached, single-family homes on larger lots. The building industry speaker cited a survey finding that 79 percent of buyers like to live this way.

Guess what? I’m one of them, at least for now. I like that I was able to buy a city lot in Modesto that has enough lawn for my two kids to run about (and for a blow-up pool that’s about done for the season).

But at some point, my wife and I will be empty-nesters looking for a smaller place close to stores and services. Ideally, downtown Modesto finally will have a lot of the multiple-story apartments and town houses that grace other cities. They would fit right in with the offices, restaurants, entertainment venues and other activity already there.

Plans for such developments came and went in the economic downturn. Even in good times, builders face the question of whether people really like this choice.

Let’s hope that at least one project gets built soon – a well-designed project – and people can see what compact, walkable development is all about. For those who don’t like it, lower-density housing will still be on the market.

Me? I’m thinking a sixth-floor condo on 10th Street, with a view of farmland I helped save.

Have an idea for the Farm Beat? Contact John Holland can at jholland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2385.

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