County composes initiative on sprawl

Stanislaus County voters may have two anti-sprawl initiatives to choose from in February: Measure E, the Stamp Out Sprawl measure, and a county-sponsored alternative.

The draft county ordinance includes a comprehensive update of the county's general plan by a 15-member commission to be appointed by the Board of Supervisors.

The general plan update is expected to take two years and cost more than $1 million, according to Stan Risen, assistant executive officer in the county chief executive's office. Risen gave an overview of the draft initiative to the Stanislaus County Planning Commission at a workshop Thursday.

The county alternative comes at the request of the Board of Supervisors, whose members oppose the SOS initiative. SOS, which was written by Modesto City Councilman Garrad Marsh and former Modesto Councilman Denny Jackman, would prohibit rezoning unincorporated farmland for residential development unless approved by a countywide public vote.

County officials say the SOS initiative doesn't stop sprawl in urban areas, where most growth occurs; encourages "ballot box planning" and reduces complex issues to a 'yes' or 'no' vote; and sets up expensive campaigns by developers to gain voter approval of rezonings.

Jackman commented Sunday that urban areas are the logical place for growth, because they have police, fire protection, water and sewer services in place. The county subsidizes those services in unincorporated areas with general fund money, Jackman said. He also questioned the county's credibility on protecting farmland, citing the supervisors' recent approval of a plan for a major development in Sa-lida.

The draft recommends the following principles, Risen said:

Farmland mitigation to offset loss of agricultural land to development. That could take the form of conservation easements on an acre-for-acre basis to preserve farmland in perpetuity.

Policies that encourage cities to adopt community boundaries and buffers to define and develop community identities

Policies directing growth to areas of poorer quality soil or less productive farmland, such as the foothills

Policies that encourage growth in areas that discourage urban sprawl, minimize impacts on agriculture, encourage economic development and require growth to pay its way

A residential allocation program that sets an annual limit on the number of single-family homes that can be built in unincorporated areas

A requirement that changes to the new general plan would require two public hearings and a four-fifths vote of the Board of Supervisors

The county's draft initiative says that if it and SOS are approved by the voters, the one with the most votes prevails.

If the county initiative wins, the commission will be appointed and the new general plan drafted, a process that is expected to take two years. The new general plan will need the approval of county voters to be implemented, Risen said.

Two-year restriction in place

In the meantime, a two-year restriction on converting farmland to residential use without a vote of the public will be in place, sort of a "mini SOS," Assistant County Counsel John Doering said.

If the public rejects the new general plan, a second two-year moratorium on farmland conversion to housing would go into effect while supervisors try to revise the plan to gain public approval.

If the supervisors can't get public approval of the new general plan after two tries, they can implement the plan anyway, Risen said. "We don't want a 'Catch-22' with no updated general plan," he said. "This puts quite a bit of onus on the Board of Supervisors to come up with something palatable to the public."

The cost of the initiative shouldn't become a stumbling block, Risen said. Most of the cost involves developing the new general plan and going through the environmental review for it. The county needs to update the general plan anyway, he said. The plan was updated in 1994.

The alternative initiative was requested by the Board of Supervisors three months ago, Risen said. The draft shown to the planning commission was put together by a committee of county department heads and other officials. It needs the approval of the Board of Supervisors before it goes on the February ballot.

Planning commissioners were generally positive about the concepts Thursday but said the makeup of the 15-member commission would be critical. Commissioners Marie Assali and Ar-senio Mataka said the commission would have to be a cross section of the community and not dominated by developers.

Jackman said Sunday that he welcomed new ideas but was skeptical of the county's motives and credibility.

"Good. The more the merrier," he said of the draft county initiative. "If it's a better plan, great. If not, Stamp Out Sprawl is moving forward."

The county's credibility on preserving farmland was heavily damaged when the board approved the Salida Now plan in August rather than putting it up to a public vote after a petition drive qualified it for the ballot, Jackman said.

Salida tax base would increase

The Salida Now plan includes a regional shopping center, business and industrial parks, and thousands of homes. The growth plan would double the population of Salida to about 28,000 and give the unincorporated community the tax base to allow it to become a city, according to proponents.

"The Salida plan intends to cover the best farmland we have," Jackman said.

If the Board of Supervisors puts the alternative initiative, called "The County of Stanislaus Citizen Control of Farmland Preservation, Growth and Fiscal Responsibility," on the ballot, county officials will not be able to advocate for it, Doering said. They will be able to offer factual summaries of the proposal, he added. But groups not affiliated with the county can mount campaigns in favor of it, Doering said.

Bee staff writer Tim Moran can be reached at tmoran@modbee.com or 578-2349.