Density compromise is good - if used

Apr 3, 2009

Modesto Bee

There are several ways to look at the compromise approach adopted this week by elected leaders selecting a long- term growth vision for the San Joaquin Valley.

One is that the valley too often settles for average rather than aspiring to do things differently, such as reducing sprawl across farmland by insisting that 10 homes be built per acre.

Another is that the adopted goal of 6.8 homes per acre is far more realistic and therefore achievable.

And another is that this is just an exercise anyway, so why think about moving past the status quo, which is an average of 4.3 homes per acre?

There's some truth in all three views, which is why we're OK with the compromise — so long as elected leaders do not lose sight of the bigger picture, which is having a vision that protects farmland, discourages sprawl and provides people with multiple housing choices.

Cities and counties aren't mandated to meet the density goal set by the San Joaquin Valley Policy Council, although that could change as a new state law is implemented. Furthermore, the state is providing incentives toward higher densities, such as earmarking certain transportation funds for jurisdictions that promote apartments, condominiums and other high-density housing close to public transit facilities.

The vision adopted Wednesday now goes back to county boards of supervisors and city councils to incorporate into their thinking.

We're doubtful it will have much impact in Stanislaus County, where the elected leaders were unenthusiastic participants in this whole blueprint process.

Last fall, they refused to set a common goal for density, opting to let each of the nine cities and the county use their current general plan goals as their density targets. The driving sentiment appeared to be, "We don't want anyone, but especially the state, telling us what to do."

The fact is, the density goal of 6.3 homes per acre falls at the low end of the general plan ranges of most cities.

Modesto, like many large cities, has a higher density rate and is likely to be increasingly dense, compared with smaller cities, such as Newman.

In the "Eager to Grow" package in Sunday's Bee, reporter Garth Stapley provided some useful comparisons of how cities in Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties have grown since 1990.

Patterson not only has grown quickly, but its leaders appear to favor much more growth, in spite of its high foreclosure
rate and water supply problems. We urge Patterson residents to start asking hard questions about whether they really want to continue down this path.

Around the valley, residents aren't paying much attention to long-term growth planning, in large part because building has slowed so much because of the economy.

Arguably, this is the best time to establish a long-term vision. Housing density is only one piece of the plan, but an important one. Housing sprawling out across the valley not only destroys valuable farmland but also contributes to air pollution, traffic and other problems.

The Blueprint Plan is only as useful as the actions that follow. The regional council adopted a realistic goal. We hope that council members, supervisors and the public will recognize the value in incorporating it into their decisions.