Community Columns

Planning by City Council, supervisors isn't working, either

Hard on the heels of the Stanislaus County supervisors' stand against "planning by ballot box," the state of California is considering a stand against "planning by supervisors."

When they adopted the Salida Now initiative before it could be put before voters, Supervisors Jim DeMartini, Jeff Grover and Dick Monteith made it clear they thought planning decisions should be kept out of the hands of voters.

"This keeps the county and the Board of Supervisors in complete control. It doesn't leave it up to the ballot box," Grover said.

It's true that initiatives often feature hype and emotion better suited to professional wrestling than to critical decision-making. But the not-so- hidden assumption in Grover's statement is that city- and county-planned projects are better than history shows them to be.

And according to Claudia Chandler of the California Energy Commission, if we keep planning as usual, "California is not going to be inhabitable."

The state's concern is that city and county leaders eschew regional growth considerations in favor of case-by-case decisions that may seem to make sense within their own limited context but add up to a regional boondoggle. Every project proposal promises ever more "progress," but the end result is too often the same: insufficient infrastructure, a poor jobs-to-housing ratio and strained social services.

Modesto's Village I was supposed to solve traffic problems with a pedestrian-friendly planning focus. Patterson's Diablo Grande was going to keep housing off farmland and "in the hills"; Salida Now will provide an expressway and the ever-promised "jobs, jobs, jobs."

Somehow, city- and county-planned projects too seldom measure up to their hyped forecasts.

For one thing, each project often is seen in isolation from the rest of the region. Thus, DeMartini justified his Salida Now vote by saying, "I'm not sure how much the West Side cares about the Salida plan. It's more of a local issue."

This kind of provincial attitude is exactly what concerns the California Energy Commission and other state agencies.

The simple truth is that there are few, if any, local issues anymore. Bay Area pollution and commuters impact the Central Valley. California's overall lack of water has kept Diablo Grande from fulfilling its promise. More houses in Salida will affect access to Vintage Faire Mall and the new Kaiser Permanente Medical Center. And so it goes.

Absent a regional plan, California is doomed to a future of ever-decreasing resources and social services. And the anxiety over recent legal rulings on Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water could turn to panic when we realize that growth has threatened to outpace our water supply for years now.

Like those who gambled on subprime mortgages, we've let the promise of rising equity and continued wet years lure us into a complacent disregard for the consequences of a frontier attitude more suited to the 1950s than the 21st century.

And as much as county supervisors wish to avoid "planning by ballot box," they may learn soon enough that ballot box support for regional planning may in the end trump "planning by supervisors."

Caine, a Modesto resident, teaches in the humanities department at Merced College. E-mail him at