Housing is critical to valley's future, planner says

In 25 years, the San Joaquin Valley will add the equivalent of 14 cities the size of Modesto. By then, one in five Californians will be over the age of 65, and 20 percent or more of them won't drive.

Fuel costs will continue to rise, as will food costs as the world population grows. Global warming is likely to accelerate with the growth of vehicle miles driven.

That's a future seen by Don Weden, retired principal planner for Santa Clara County, who spoke Wednesday night at the Stanislaus Local Agency Formation Commission. LAFCO is the agency that regulates the growth of the incorporated cities of the county, and Weden had a message for the commissioners:

"How and where we house our future population is the most critical issue facing us in the 21st century," he said.

Those decisions can help relieve problems relating to rapid population growth, an aging population, global warming, and rising fuel and food costs, Weden said. Or they can make them worse, trapping senior citizens in suburban homes far from shopping or medical offices, keeping residents in cars that drive up gasoline prices and contribute to global warming and spiraling food costs.

"We need to become intelligently more urban," he said. That means evolving from suburban subdivisions with large houses on large lots to creating neighborhoods in which people have the option of walking to the grocery store and taking mass transit, Weden said. Places to live where the jobs aren't 70 or 80 miles away.

"It's creating livability, not just density. Creating neighborhoods, not just good developments," he said.

Most of the county's municipal governments are wrestling with plans to deal with housing and growth, from the San Joaquin Valley Blueprint process to updating general plans, specific plans and housing elements, Weden noted. Those plans will set the cities and the county on a course for the next ten years or more, he said.

"You have a narrow window of opportunity. If you don't get it right this time, you won't have another bite at it for a long time," Weden told the commissioners.

Future needs, not current 'wants'

He urged them to think in terms of future needs, not current "wants." "Remember, it's not really just about us," he said. That entails asking the right questions, Weden said.

Instead of asking residents how to make the area a better place, which leads to a list of current "wants," ask how the city can be prepared to thrive under the coming changed conditions, Weden said.

"What is the world going to be like in 20 or 30 years? What do we need to do to succeed in that environment?" he asked.

Commissioners said Weden gave them food for thought, but some were skeptical of aspects of the speech.

"Not all population growth is the same in substance or in numbers," commissioner Dick Monteith said. "Increases in immigration in the valley are sky high. It's a little different," he said. Immigrants tend to be younger and have more children, for instance. "There are things we have to address and tailor-make," Monteith said.

Commissioner Jim DeMartini commented that Santa Clara is a poster child for what Stanislaus County doesn't want: the paving over of a vibrant agricultural area with houses.

"You lost me completely on global warming," DeMartini said. "I've always thought that's a farce to scare people into more government control."

DeMartini also questioned the population projections, citing the aging population and the declining number of families with children that Weden also talked about. "I just don't believe it," he said of the population estimates.

Commissioner Tia Saletta wondered how to convince consumers to accept a different kind of housing.

"They want big houses and big yards. How do you change people's idea of what housing should be in the future?" she asked.

A first step, Weden said, is getting the public to understand the changes that are coming.

"I'm not here to advocate growth. I'm just saying, here's what the experts say will happen. I don't want to debate global warming. If it's a hoax, the population will still be getting older, population growth will still be happening, fuel prices will still be high. If we create great urban neighborhoods, and the challenges aren't as severe as we thought they would be, what have we lost?" he asked.

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