Once progressive Tulare is backsliding, critics say

10/27/2008 4:31 AM

10/27/2008 4:32 AM

Tulare County edged San Joaquin County to claim top rank in The Bee's planning survey of the San Joaquin Valley's eight counties, thanks to high scores in outreach, farmland preservation, development fees and economic leadership.

But that news had homegrown critics asking about honor among thieves.

"Plans are one thing," said Jeff Steen, an agribusinessman and co-chairman of Tulare County Citizens for Responsible Growth. "It's execution that truly matters."

Tulare and San Joaquin counties both rake in extra money for high-visibility road projects, thanks to higher sales taxes similar to Measure S facing Stanislaus County voters next week.

And leaders in Tulare County's eight cities turned heads in 1974 when they adopted the valley's first urban growth boundaries, a progressive move for a small county. The plan featured an innovative point system meant to help leaders guide development to the most logical places.

"That's why we may have scored well," surmised Sarah Graber, former executive director of Tulare County Citizens for Responsible Growth. "But the plan has been gutted."

The citizens group monitors a process updating the Tulare County general plan, a document guiding growth. County supervisors recently signaled willingness to allow building of new towns in rural areas, flying in the face of smart growth principles.

"Tulare (County) is intent on going backward 20 years," said Ed Thompson, California director for the American Farmland Trust. His office keeps a keen eye on growth policies of all eight counties.

California Attorney General Jerry Brown's office wrote a scathing 13-page letter protesting the Tulare County general plan's environmental study. It "ignores any alternative that would aggressively foster smart growth by limiting development to existing urban areas," Deputy Attorney General Susan Fiering wrote.

The county's eight cities joined to hire a lawyer to guide them in similar protest.

County leaders "do a good job of reaching out to citizens," Steen said. "If they get points (in The Bee survey) for outreach, they're going to do well. If they get points for listening, they will do poorly."

County Supervisor Allen Ishida defended the policy switch, saying new development should be guided to poor-quality soil -- also a smart growth ideal. The county's largest cities, Visalia and Tulare, sit on its richest soil and should not be allowed to sprawl, he said.

"We do not direct growth," Ishida added. "It's a function of where people want to live and where developers believe they can make money."

The county goes along to get its cut in tax revenue, Graber charged. "If you need money, development is the short and easy way to do it."

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

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