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Stanislaus' growth pact leaves some chagrined

Most leaders in the San Joaquin Valley have approved regional planning cooperation pacts, pledging more compact growth with less pollution.

But reluctant officials throughout Stanislaus County have equated the regional blueprint process with bullying by state government. Their draft pact up for a vote tonight, already several months late, essentially represents the status quo.

Stanislaus' foot-dragging ultimately could harm the valley's seven other counties, some officials say.

"Overall, on a valleywide basis, we're making great strides," said Marjie Kirn, who coordinates the eight-county effort from the Merced County Association of Governments. "But if Stanislaus doesn't step up, it may hurt that effort."

The watered-down scenario going before the Stanislaus Council of Governments tonight would "fall far short of standards called for" by state law, said David Hosley, president of the Modesto-based Great Valley Center.

"There seems to be a tremendous amount of distrust (in Stanislaus County) of motives of the state in wanting a regional vision for land use," Hosley said.

Six counties -- Merced, Madera, Fresno, Kings, Kern and Tulare -- this year overcame differences among their cities to produce countywide growth scenarios. All call for higher living density, a change from the valley's historic pattern of about 91 percent single-family houses.

Fresno County's scenario sees three of every four new units in higher-density duplexes and apartments along transportation routes. Fewer reasons to drive should translate into less pollution and climate change, the theory goes.

That's what state officials want, reflected in a law recently signed by Gov. Schwarzen- egger, a landmark attempt at addressing climate change with new rules for development. Senate Bill 375 would direct transportation money to sprawl-curbing projects.

Not eager, but compliant

Other valley counties were less enthusiastic, but still compliant. Madera County, for example, approved a scenario with duplexes and apartments representing only one in five new units. That's far less than Fresno County, but more than the historic pattern of less than one in 10.

Officials with StanCOG, however, balked at a draft plan calling for 27 percent medium- and high-density units, a "moderate growth scenario" preferred by a majority of people attending 14 community meetings over the summer. StanCOG is a policy board made up of representatives from the Board of Supervisors and the county's nine cities.

In the past month, leaders from the county and its nine cities met individually on the matter. City councils in Newman, Riverbank and Waterford affirmed the moderate-growth plan, but those in Modesto, Turlock, Oakdale, Patterson and Hughson deferred acting until after tonight's StanCOG vote.

Ceres officials rejected the moderate-growth scenario, saying their general plan provisions should suffice. What started as talk of a concep- tual plan has morphed into unreasonable demands to satisfy the state's climate-change legislation, Mayor Anthony Cannella said.

"Frankly, I find that offensive," he said. "What was supposed to be a carrot has now become a stick."

County supervisors last week said they will come up with another proposal based less on housing options and more on other contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.

"The blueprint thing is the biggest bunch of nonsense I've seen," Supervisor Jim DeMartini said last week. "It's nothing more than a state takeover of local (planning authority)."

Adding more spice to tonight's meeting is a scheduled presentation on SB 375 by its chief consultant, Bill Craven. Supervisor Jeff Grover, at a meeting Tuesday, said Craven is coming to "school us." Scoffed DeMartini, "Spin us might be a better term."

With no consensus among agencies throughout Stanislaus County, StanCOG senior planner Lark Downs cobbled a draft pact for tonight's meeting, relying on individual general plans.

But a study unveiled last week says the valley would not meet new state standards if left to existing general plan policies, a University of California at Davis expert concluded.

Also late to the regional- cooperation party is San Joaquin County, where planning leaders reviewed but did not approve an incre- mental-change scenario in September. They, too, "expressed concern with respect to the state's intent," said Dana Cowell, deputy director of the San Joaquin Council of Governments. It's too early to say whether the item will be treated this month or next, he said.

Kirn, who is spearheading the valley's blueprint, said some officials may balk at regional planning for fear of losing power over decisions such as approving stores, the sales tax of which brings money to local coffers. That means a lot at a time when agencies are struggling to balance budgets, to keep parks open and keep public safety officers on the street.

"Unfortunately, they're making poor decisions based on short-term financial benefits," Kirn said.

StanCOG's policy board will meet today at 6 p.m. in the basement chamber of Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St., Modesto.

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

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