Home builders still prefer cities to unincorporated areas, but the trend is gradually reversing in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
Newly compiled numbers support the premise of Measure E, its supporters say, as Stanislaus County voters weigh the initiative against a competing growth measure on Tuesday's ballot.
The premise is that county leaders have done a poor job following their own policy of channeling growth from the country and into cities.
County officials are countering with Measure L, claiming it would provide a more reasoned approach to sensible growth in unincorporated areas.
Experts and officials on all levels nearly universally agree that cities are better equipped to welcome new homes. The Bee compiled construction statistics from the past eight years to see if county officials have followed related policy.
The Bee's review suggests Stanislaus County leaders are doing better in some respects than their counterparts in neighboring San Joaquin and Merced counties. But all three clearly are losing ground by increasingly allowing more homes in unincorporated areas.
Since 2000, the gap between homes built in cities compared with those in unincorporated areas of Stanislaus County has narrowed an average of 1.2 percent each year.
The trend is more startling in San Joaquin County, where the gap is shrinking by 4 percent per year. That's mostly explained by Mountain House, a new town with about 2,000 homes in the past five years.
One in every five homes approved in Merced County over the past eight years went up in an unincorporated area -- a far worse ratio than the other two counties. New homes in the towns of Delhi, Hilmar and Santa Nella account for much of the increase.
The number of homes built in the three counties' unincorporated areas -- 12,717 -- is nearly equivalent to those in all of Ceres.
Those approved in Stanislaus County alone -- 2,939 -- collectively represent, on paper, a "community" larger than either of the cities of Waterford or Hughson, which have 2,574 and 1,907 homes, respectively.
"History demonstrates that (county leaders) haven't gotten it," said Denny Jackman, a Measure E supporter. "That's why we've taken the action we have."
Jackman, a former Modesto city councilman, and Councilman Garrad Marsh wrote Measure E to force countywide votes of the residents before agricultural zoning could be changed for housing in unincorporated areas. It would wrest control over home projects from county supervisors.
So, supervisors are offering Measure L, which would require a revision of the county's growth-guiding document by a group of appointed residents. If both measures pass, the one with more "yes" votes would take effect.
Builders have not taken sides, though Building Industry Association of Central California officials criticize the more restrictive Measure E.
Former BIA president Bill Zoslocki said building patterns tend to cycle. Cities running out of buildable land toward the end of a construction boom, about 2005, could explain part of the gradual slide away from cities, he said.
"If there is no market available to build inside cities, your option is to go out in the country," Zoslocki said.
Zoslocki noted that cities still welcome a solid majority of all new homes -- 89 percent in Stanislaus County, according to the Bee review.
Of the other 11 percent, or 2,939 homes, most went up in Salida, Keyes and Denair, said Ron Freitas, county planning director. He helped craft Measure L, which focuses on a rewrite of the county's general plan, a step his office likely will take this year regardless of the outcome of Tuesday's vote.
The general plan has not been updated in 14 years, though state law recommends five-to-10-year intervals. The plan is composed of eight categories; the housing and land use categories are most applicable to growth.
Stanislaus County's "Housing Element 2001-2008" shows that county leaders, reacting to state building mandates, seven years ago projected building 3,261 homes in unincorporated areas in that time. They had approved 2,939 through the end of December.
That's a much better record in terms of constraint than was shown during the previous "Housing Element's" lifetime, from 1992 to 2001, when county officials projected 2,206 new homes in unincorporated areas but issued 4,450 permits. They didn't come close to meeting affordable housing goals; instead of constructing 529 units affordable to very-low-income families, they approved 273, while building 2,434 luxury homes, or nearly three times the number anticipated.
"It should be no surprise that there comes a public reaction" to questionable growth patterns, Jackman said.
How many of the current period's 2,939 homes account for new ranchettes, as opposed to those in urbanized towns such as Salida, Keyes and Denair, could not be determined. Ed Thompson, state director of the American Farmland Trust, whose organization uses several other measures to track farmland loss, said ranchettes are a subtle but dangerous form of sprawl because they often intrude on rich soil.
'Nobody's minding the store'
Although more restrictive than Measure L, Measure E would do nothing to stifle ranchettes because approval requires no zoning change.
"One explanation (for the building trend away from cities) is that nobody's minding the store. You can't change your conduct if you don't know what you're doing," Thompson said.
"Another guess is that (county officials) are chasing revenue."
For example, Stanislaus County supervisors, eager for a tax infusion from a future regional shopping center, recently bypassed a countywide vote on a Salida growth plan, choosing to adopt it outright. Plans trumpet 27,000 jobs, many in new industry -- and 4,470 new homes, doubling the town's population of about 14,000.
"I do think there has been an accountability problem in the valley when it comes to urban development," Thompson said. "City and county general plans are very well-intentioned. They say they don't develop farmland, or if they do, they develop it efficiently so as to not waste land. But you look at the numbers and they're not achieving those goals."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2390.