A new study says cities in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties are among the nation’s best at resisting sprawl, theoretically giving people here a better chance to be safe and healthy and live longer than most other places in the United States.
Merced County also fared well in “Measuring Sprawl 2014,” Smart Growth America’s first update of a landmark 2002 report that crystallized the downsides to poorly planned leapfrog growth – the kind that has drawn criticism and cries for change in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
The new study, by a Washington, D.C., coalition of groups advocating for city planning solutions, is likely to be cited in ongoing debates over growth strategies. Though the area’s recession recovery continues to sputter, local efforts to influence policies guiding development are surging.
For example:• Denny Jackman, stunned at Modesto leaders rejecting Wood Colony pleas to leave alone that longtime farming enclave, intends shortly to begin gathering signatures for an urban limits ballot initiative that would wrest some growth decisions from the City Council and give them to voters. If successful, the issue could go to a citywide vote next year, possibly sooner.
• Responding to information requests swirling around the Wood Colony issue and others, a growth-regulating agency quietly has begun publishing comprehensive histories showing sphere of influence changes, or growth intentions, for each of the county’s nine cities over the past three decades. A Modesto Bee review found that Newman plans to more than double in land size in the next 20 years, and Oakdale and Waterford growth areas are nearly as big as current city limits.
• That agency – the Stanislaus Local Agency Formation Commission – added to the same report extensive information on soil quality in each city’s future growth area. A review by The Bee found that 62 percent of the earth in those spheres of influence is considered superior farmland.
• Groundbreaking draft studies linking growth policies to future transportation projects recently were published by the Stanislaus Council of Governments. The agency seeks feedback from people in the next few weeks.
Growth a concern
Although the region’s economic rebound has not been spectacular compared with elsewhere, sustained attention to growth issues suggests a widespread recognition that we will become what we plan.
“We need to really step up in planning correctly and making a more healthy environment, not only for us and our kids, but our kids’ kids,” said Luis Molina, mayor of Patterson and StanCOG chairman, at a packed Friday gathering in Modesto of local government and civic leaders yearning for insights on reviving suburbs.
Recent pitched battles over Wood Colony have driven headlines, sparked a recall movement and landed Modesto on the pages of The New York Times. Passionate letters to the editor of The Bee, many claiming that city leaders are tone-deaf to the will of the people, continue flowing in.
“It is a travesty to let these bullying developers get their greedy hands on this precious land,” said Joan P. Smith of Modesto.
Jackman’s drive to establish urban limits, or lines on a map beyond which Modesto could not grow without a vote of the people, was in motion before the City Council upset Wood Colony with Jan. 28 and March 25 votes that eventually could bring stores and warehouses near farms established well more than a century ago. City leaders want to attract companies with jobs to counter chronically high unemployment.
Stanislaus LAFCo✔, which weighs city requests to grow, in 1996 rejected Modesto’s plan to add 1,000 Wood Colony acres to the city’s sphere of influence, an area eyed for growth in coming years. Despite strident protests, the recent City Council votes could lead to commercial and industrial development in areas bordering the colony.
Some leaders say Modesto must prepare to attract jobs, while many farming families resist any suggestion of a change to their community.
The Smart Growth America study seems to suggest that we don’t have it nearly as bad as other places.
“Measuring Sprawl 2014,” based on 2010 data, ranks Stanislaus County eighth on a list of the nation’s “most compact and connected” midsize metropolitan areas, and San Joaquin County did even better, landing fourth. The category is defined as having from 500,000 to 1 million people.
Among 221 urban areas of all sizes in the study, San Joaquin placed 41st, Stanislaus 66th and Merced County 99th.
“This shows we have local developers, real estate people and politicians who come together to make sure it’s smart development and makes sense for our community,” said Byron Bogaard, the Central Valley Association of Realtors’ interim executive. His group represents 1,700 real estate workers and developers in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties.
New York and San Francisco were ranked first and second in the Smart Growth America study, which puts a premium on high density and effective transportation. Areas with the worst sprawl are Atlanta, Nashville and Southern California’s Inland Empire, the report says.
University of Utah researchers commissioned by the advocacy group focused on density of homes and jobs, mixes of homes, jobs and services in neighborhoods, vibrant downtowns and activity centers and effective street networks. People living in places with favorable rankings, researchers said, are statistically more likely to go from poor to rich; are less likely to be obese and suffer from high blood pressure and diabetes; and die less frequently in car crashes. They pay more for housing than those in sprawling cities, but that cost is outweighed by paying less for more abundant transportation options, the report says.
It seems to contradict others that have suggested high rates of obesity and diabetes in this area, although efforts to combat them have been launched.
Stanislaus cities scored a little worse than the national average on downtowns and activity centers, and cities in Merced County ranked poorly in street connectivity. But both counties’ cities scored much higher than the average for having effective mixes of homes and services in neighborhoods.
“As residents and their elected leaders recognize the health, safety and economic benefits of better development strategies, many are re-examining their traditional zoning, (growth and) transportation decisions,” the study says.
Making it work
Sometimes, they have no choice.
StanCOG’s Sustainable Communities Strategy, for example, was mandated by a 2008 state law requiring that agencies address climate change, and is part of a larger effort called Valley Vision Stanislaus, a countywide effort to identify ways to put businesses and houses close to transportation. California leaders hope that coordinating land use and transportation planning – essentially building homes closer to jobs, stores and bus stops – will cut back on smog and traffic because people won’t have to drive as much.
For the first time, the integrated study “focuses on maintaining the region’s vitality and character by creating a more sustainable transportation system and land use development pattern,” the StanCOG draft report reads.
Meanwhile, LAFCo chose to incorporate a wealth of information on soil quality and cities’ spheres of influence partly because people have been talking so much about them, including Modesto’s Wood Colony struggle and an almost concurrent vision of absorbing nearby Salida. To solidify support for his initiative, Jackman – a former city councilman with more than three decades of farmland preservation advocacy – enlisted Vance Kennedy and Jake Wenger, both well-known for farming and groundwater expertise.
“This report, in particular, was in response to multiple requests for information recently regarding the history of farmland in and around spheres of influence,” said Sara Lytle-Pinhey, LAFCo’s assistant executive officer.
It’s possible that Stanislaus fared well in the Smart Growth America study because of its long tradition of anti-sprawl citizen movements. They include Modesto voters weighing in before sewer lines can be extended to growth areas; a Jackman-led ban on county leaders approving subdivisions without voter approval; and new LAFCo requirements that cities preserve farmland elsewhere when requesting annexations.
“The public has had more of a relationship with land use issues here than in other communities,” Jackman said, “and we’re proud of it.”