Growth Control Comes To The Central Valley

 

Stanislaus County voters may have rocked the Central Valley on Tuesday by approving a growth-control initiative that prohibits the rezoning of agricultural land without voter approval.

Traditionally, growth control initiatives have been a coastal phenomenon. But they have been inching into the valley in recent years. A growth boundary initiative in Stockton narrowly lost out to city-written boundary measure in 2004 (see CP&DR, December 2004). Tracy voters adopted a housing permit cap in 2000 and have refused to ease it. Davis, of course, has plenty of voter-imposed growth rules. Modesto’s advisory vote requirements date to the 1970s.  

But none of those restrictions compares to Measure E — known as Stamp Out Sprawl or SOS — which Stanislaus County voters supported by a 2-to-1 ratio. Similar to Napa County’s vaunted Measure J and the SOAR initiatives in Ventura County, Measure E requires voters to decide the rezoning of agricultural land, although Measure E is limited to residential rezonings. In Ventura and Napa counties, the result has been that significant development in unincorporated areas has nearly ceased. If the effect is the same in Stanislaus County, it would be a major change, because the county has been plenty willing to carve up farms with subdivisions. According to the Modesto Bee, the county has approved nearly 3,000 houses in unincorporated areas since 2000.

The county fought like hell to block Measure E. First, it delayed the vote on Measure E until 2008, even though advocates submitted petition signatures in June 2006. In the interim, developers drafted a growth-friendly plan for Salida, the county’s largest unincorporated growth area, and gathered signatures to place the plan on the ballot. When the Salida plan qualified for the ballot, supervisors simply adopted it rather than permitting voters to decide (see CP&DR Local Watch, September 2007). It was a slick move, but one wonders whether the development community won the Salida battle at the expense of the county war.

Surprisingly, the development community sat out the February election. Builders didn’t like Measure E, but they didn’t campaign against it, either.

Denny Jackman, an SOS co-author and former Modesto councilman, figures that builders didn’t fight Measure E because they know that protecting farmland has become a public priority. Plus, he said, “There are nine incorporated cities in Stanislaus County, so there are plenty of areas in which the BIA [Building Industry Association] can still build.”

Jackman contends that SOS vote sent “a real strong signal” to the county and cities about growth planning. But Larry Giventer, a professor of politics and administration at California State University, Stanislaus, questioned how many people were even paying attention to Measure E.

“I don’t think very many people followed Measure E, compared with all the hype the presidential election and state propositions were getting. It sort of flew under the radar,” Giventer said.

In addition, the City of Modesto had its own high-profile ballot measures — one giving the City Council more authority over city administration and one dividing the city into council districts. Those measures in the county’s largest city received far more attention than the SOS initiative, Giventer said.

What helped Measure E was its offer to let voters decide on development, Giventer added. “I don’t think it’s a harbinger of things to come, I think it’s a reflection of the past. Voters like to control things,” he said.

No matter why voters approved SOS, the most important thing might be whether the initiative gets copied in other San Joaquin Valley counties. For planning wonks, farmland preservation and low-density development have been big issues in the Central Valley for a long time. In recent years, however, farmland preservation has become a public cause (CP&DR, June 2007). If Measure E gets repeated in counties like Merced and Madera, both of which have a larger percentage of unincorporated area development than Stanislaus County has, the effects could be dramatic. And, I should note, the farmland preservation movement may have deeper grassroots in Merced County than anywhere in the valley.

- Paul Shigley