What counties say might be a far cry from what they do

10/27/2008 2:47 AM

10/28/2008 7:37 AM

County leaders throughout the San Joaquin Valley have a hard time practicing what they preach about smart growth, a comprehensive planning survey reveals.

Despite near-universal agreement that development should be channeled into cities, six of the valley's eight counties approved more than 400 homes in each of their respective unincorporated areas in 2006.

"If you look at their general plans, they all say the right things -- 'Direct growth away from the best lands and into cities; create mixed-use, walkable cities' -- but none of that is happening," said Ed Thompson, state director for American Farmland Trust. He has studied growth patterns in the valley for five years and advocates against prematurely developing rural areas.

Planning officials in the valley's eight counties and 60 cities provided data in late 2007 and early 2008 for the far-ranging smart growth audit, sponsored by The Modesto Bee in cooperation with the Great Valley Center.

With overall scores ranging from 54 to 70 percent, the eight counties collectively performed better than the 60 cities, whose scores ranged from 28 to 80 percent.

The portion measuring county policies featured 40 questions in seven categories, compared with 55 questions in nine categories on the cities survey.

Cities are better equipped to accommodate growth, experts agree. But developers often salivate over raw, rural land because city lots are much more expensive and harder to find in quantities that would support an entire subdivision, where serious money can be had. Also, cities generally charge more in development fees.

The counties collectively appear strongest in categories measuring adequate fees and protection of farmland and natural resources. The last category produced the only perfect scores, achieved by San Joaquin, Madera and Kern counties, as well as the only score of zero for a single category; Kings County reported having no policy protecting creeks, streams or native trees.

Tulare County takes top honors among the eight overall, largely thanks to a long tradition of progressive smart growth policies. Critics within say that new leaders, how- ever, are picking apart those policies and making it much easier to develop in rural, unincorporated areas.

"It's not the intention of the board to direct growth anywhere. The market will do that," said Tulare County Supervisor Allen Ishida. "But we need to give the opportunity to grow. Zoning creates economic opportu-nity."

The county survey seemed to give little advantage to the valley's largest locales. Fresno and Kern counties, both about twice the size of Tulare by population, rank third and fourth among the eight.

The three smallest counties by far, however -- Kings, Madera and Merced -- landed in the three bottom spots.

Though four Stanislaus County cities finished among the Top 10 in city rankings, Stanislaus ranked an unremarkable fifth among counties. Stanislaus, whose planners approved 456 homes in unincorporated areas during 2006, finished second-to-last in the counties' development category, with a score of 21 percent.

Measure E, also known as the Stamp Out Sprawl initiative approved by Stanislaus voters in February, could change that in future studies by directing growth into cities.

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

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