Can San Joaquin valley cities afford not to plan?

Some question wisdom of planning staff layoffs

06/21/2010 5:03 AM

06/21/2010 7:28 AM

A golden opportunity for quality community planning is partly slipping away because government agencies can't afford to keep planners on the payroll.

The recession has smothered demand for reviewing subdivision blueprints, allowing planners more time for long-range work that helps determine whether a city grows well or becomes a sprawling target for ridicule.

Several planners say the construction slowdown presents a perfect time to get ready for the rebound. But fewer planners are left with each round of layoffs:

• Modesto terminated five planners last year and expects to lose more this week.
• Stanislaus County's planning staff of 21 has been reduced to 14.
• Patterson's planning staff has been slashed in half, losing its two most experienced planners.
• Oakdale eliminated two planners and a planning support staffer, and its community development director recently assumed responsibility for the city's parks department, further reducing her time for planning.
• Turlock and Riverbank each laid off a planner to save money.

"When the economy turns is when we take the opportunity to plan for the future," said Patrick Kelly, Modesto's planning manager.

"But we're having to cut back and give up on some of this work."

For example, Modesto leaders wanted an updated zoning plan for its downtown area, making residential projects much easier to build. But they shrunk the effort to just the downtown core, partly because of limited resources, Kelly said.

"You just have to be smart with your time," he said.

J.D. Hightower is the last planner standing in Riverbank, where he is community development director. Other demands have kept him from finishing a report that was nearing completion when a staff member retired a couple of months ago.

"I just don't have the time," Hightower said.

Some agencies, including the county, Turlock and Oakdale, are taking advantage of the construction slowdown by launching into major updates of their general plans, which guide growth. They can keep going because consultants do most of the heavy lifting, but consultants can be pricey, and overseeing their work still demands time from an agency's staff.

Consultants tapped

That's good for people like George Osner, a former Modesto planning manager who consults for agencies needing extra help.

"Cities are very large, complex organizations. They need to be planned for or they'll just grow sort of willy-nilly and you get a fairly poor result," he said.

John Anderson of Modesto's J.B. Anderson Land Use Planning has switched almost entirely from private clients to public agencies over the past four years.

"Boy, it's a new day. Everyone is out scrambling," said Anderson, whose clients include Ceres and Mariposa County. He's found a niche testifying in eminent domain cases, including properties taken by Stanislaus County to widen Kiernan Avenue and a proposed transmission power line south of Ceres. Among his few remaining private clients, he said, is Beard Land Improvement Co. -- which needs Anderson to counter a "brain drain" resulting from too few Modesto and Stanislaus County planners with institutional memory.

But even private planning firms are cutting back. Three years ago, Anderson employed six planners; now, just one besides himself.

No local agency admitted to approaching the brink, as Petaluma, a city known for progressive planning policies, did when leaders eliminated its entire planning department last year.

"We're pretty thin, but we're also pretty lean and mean," said Kirk Ford, Stanislaus County's planning director. "We're getting the work done with the people we have."

Danelle Stylos, community development director in Oakdale, is among few officials handing out construction permits. The city's Bridle Ridge project is humming again, she said, but Oakdale has virtually no room left for additional home or retail construction and desperately needs to continue planning.

"A general plan is a community vision, a road map for future development," Stylos said. "It has to be well thought-out. We're not going to give up (on planning) because it's the community's legacy."

John Wright, former Clovis planning director and a planning leader in the San Joaquin Valley, recently circulated among area planners a call to survey planning needs and match them with growth pressures. Some agencies "are facing some of their most serious challenges to maintaining comprehensive long-range planning staff," he wrote.

Riverbank's Hightower envisions a day when agencies will pool resources, enabling all to get the most bang for the buck.

It's already being done in Hughson, which contracts with Ripon for streetscape inspection services, and in Ceres, which pays the county for building inspectors' time. The county is close to a similar arrangement with Oakdale and is exploring merging plan-check functions with some cities, including Modesto, said Jeff Grover, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors.

Riverbank nearly hired Escalon's public works inspectors before declining revenue forced Escalon to let them go. And Modesto is close to finalizing a deal to hire out its planners to Hughson.

"I see a time when smaller cities' only way to provide quality services will be through shared resources," Hightower said. "If that involves planning, so be it."

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at or 578-2390.

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