Stanislaus County's new growth-control law could wither the county's ability to meet the state's latest housing mandate.
Measure E, passed last month by more than 67 percent of voters throughout the county, was designed to channel new subdivisions away from farmland and into its nine cities. Similar initiatives in Ventura and Napa counties dried up new-home activity in their rural areas.
The new law "is going to make it very difficult" to meet the county's quota, said Ron Freitas, the county's retiring planning director. Measure E requires a countywide vote whenever a developer wants to change agricultural zoning in favor of houses.
Measure E has "rocked the Central Valley," wrote editor Paul Shigley in California Planning & Development Report. The American Farmland Trust also trumpeted Measure E in its March 6 national e-newsletter, quoting a trust officer who said Stanislaus County supervisors had "ignored the public demand for an end to sprawl, at their peril."
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But quotas that defy logic, now being circulated, would require a sharp increase in home construction on Stanislaus County's unincorporated land.
County supervisors approved 2,620 homes in such areas during the current six-year quota cycle, which ends July 1. Instead of lowering expectations in light of Measure E -- not to mention a housing market on life support -- local planners are embracing a formula calling for 5,567 new homes in unincorporated areas during the next cycle.
At issue are Regional Housing Needs Assessments, a state government invention that local planners love to hate. All cities and counties must adopt construction goals in their housing elements and submit them to state bureaucrats for review and certification. A housing element identifies and sets goals to meet the needs of a city or county.
State officials maintain that force-feeding housing quotas prods cities and counties to try harder to erase a dearth of homes affordable to working families.
Defiant cities and counties are not eligible for millions of dollars in state and federal housing grants, and they risk expensive lawsuits, state housing officials say.
"The state is interested in ensuring that there's adequate housing in every community," said Cathy Creswell, deputy director of Housing and Community Development. "Local governments have the unique responsibility to make sure they're providing opportunities for the development of sufficient housing."
Many planners roll their eyes in reply, contending that artificial goals ignore reality, including a housing market with a faint pulse. Fully 21 percent of cities and counties throughout California are out of compliance with the state-certification law.
The ratio is similar in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, where housing elements in five of 22 cities, or 22.7 percent, have not received the state's blessing.
Waterford, Ripon, Tracy, Gustine and Atwater may have missed out on generous grants, state housing officials say.
Regional Housing Needs Assessments might take on extra meaning in Stanislaus County, where the current cycle for determining quotas coincides with the advent of Measure E.
Planners say the process is much calmer than five years ago, when Sacramento handed down an exorbitant demand for 35,239 new homes in Stanislaus County and its nine cities.
The 10 agencies produced only 23,964 in that six-year cycle, which ends July 1. Planners recently breathed a sigh of relief when Sacramento released a more reasonable goal of 25,600 homes for the new period ending in 2014.
"I think maybe they took to heart what we told them" in 2003, said Lark Downs, senior regional planner with the Stanislaus Council of Governments. That agency is composed of representatives from the county and the nine cities.
All agreed to divide the new 25,600-home mandate among themselves based on each agency's current number of homes.
But that formula inexplicably removes the growth burden from some fast-growing, smaller cities and puts the onus on Modesto and unincorporated areas of Stanislaus County -- the only agencies restricted by growth-control laws.
Measures A and M, respectively passed in 1979 and 1997, require Modestans to cast advisory votes when developers want to extend sewer service for new subdivisions. The city didn't come close to meeting its last quota of 15,347 new homes, producing only 5,772 -- yet the new formula demands 11,129 more.
Measure E, which calls for binding -- not advisory -- votes, could prove even more restrictive for county leaders, who must more than double production in unincorporated areas to meet the proposed quota of 5,567 houses.
4,800 new houses would help
The wild card is Salida, whose growth plan was rushed through by supervisors before voters approved Measure E in early February. If things stay on track, Sa- lida would get 4,800 new homes, satisfying a majority of the quota for Stanislaus County's unincorporated expanse.
But Measure E supporters recently said the measure should be retroactive, which would eviscerate the Salida plan, which includes a future regional shopping center and eastward expressway from Highway 99.
Patterson, one of California's fastest-growing cities, with 2,076 new homes in the current cycle, is expected to add only 687 in the next, according to the formula proposed by local planners.
Riverbank's draft goal is 894 homes, despite having built 2,185 last time. Relatively tiny Hughson mustered 955 housing permits last time, but its draft quota calls for only 281 in the coming cycle.
StanCOG's policy board is expected to vote on the methodology March 25, marking the start of a 45-day public comment period.
The March 25 StanCOG policy meeting is set for 6 p.m. in the basement chamber at Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St., Modesto.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2390.