Two events will shape Stanislaus County planning and development issues this year: a proposed ballot initiative to rein in urban sprawl, and a plan to encourage business development in an unincorporated community north of Modesto.
Proponents of the farmland-protection initiative have until May 11 to gather signatures to place it on the November ballot after the county Board of Supervisors refused to do so. Sponsored by the group GOAL (Growth: Orderly, Affordable, and Livable), the measure would establish 30-year urban limit lines that coincide with those set in the general plan of each city and the county. How that initiative, if approved, would affect potentially controversial plans for extensive commercial and residential development in Salida, north of the Modesto city limits, is uncertain.
The proposed initiative has one feature that might be unique: it gives elected officials the option of amending general plans that block development in one area to add another development area to the general plan. In other words, more development could be accommodated if another area is declared off limits.
The urban limit lines could also be changed by a vote of the electorate, according to Bruce Frohman, a Modesto City Councilman and a member of GOAL's board of directors. Frohman is optimistic that the group would get 11,000 valid signatures needed to place the measure on the ballot. GOAL's members contend that too much of the county's valuable farmland is being used for development.
The measure is known as both the FOOD Initiative, which stands for Future Options on Development, and more officially as FSI, the Farmland Stabilization Initiative.
The measure will definitely be on the ballot in Turlock this November and in Modesto in November 2001. The city councils in Turlock and Modesto, the county's largest cities agreed to put the FSI to a vote. But those measures will not take effect unless the county measure gets on the ballot and passes. Voters in the county's smaller cities could get a chance to vote on it in elections scheduled for November, or in 2001 and 2002.
County Supervisor Nick Blom does not expect FSI to qualify for the ballot. Blom, a farmer, and said the FSI would tell him how to use his land. "You're taking my property rights away," he said. He noted that an earlier GOAL-sponsored proposal, Measure F, was soundly defeated by voters about eight years ago.
That measure, Frohman explained, would have changed general plans to stop conversion of farmland to urban use. In contrast, FSI respects the boundaries set by general plans that are in effect.
"It [Measure F] lost because it was too restrictive," he said. "I thought it was too restrictive."
Modesto, which is home to 182,000 of the county's 450,000 residents, could conduct the key the election. Frohman said two things favor the current initiative: county officials' failure during the past three years to develop a specific proposal on future land use, and anger in Modesto over the implementation of Measures P & Q.
Frohman said that the FSI initiative was to be on the ballot last year. But GOAL postponed things for a year because county officials asked for more time to develop their own specific proposals through what they call their visioning plan, which was intended to address land use, education, transportation and other issues.
Under city council-sponsored Measures P and Q, voters in Modesto were asked in November 1997 approve the extension of sewer lines to properties that had already been annexed into the city but had not been subjected to a public vote, as an earlier ballot measure had specified. Those measures would have provided sewer service to 2,500 acres on the fringes of the city that would support 4,000 homes. Measures P and Q both lost by wide margins, but the City Council continued to approve the extension of sewer lines into the area, claiming that state laws required them to do so because properties had already been annexed into a city (See CP&DR, January 1998).
Voters in the same November 1997 election approved Measure M, which was intended to tighten loopholes in Measure A, an advisory vote passed in 1979. Measure A required the city to conduct elections before extending sewer lines to new developments. Measure M was also an advisory vote, so GOAL and its allies were not able to force the council to heed it.
Frohman said there has been a lot of new development on the north side of Modesto in the past two years, and many people are angry because they voted against it when they defeated Measures P and Q.
"They're not trusting their elected officials," Frohman said.
Supporters and opponents disagree on how the FSI could impact another hot issue in the county: a community plan update for Salida, an unincorporated area just north of Modesto. Salida has a current population of 12,000 but is projected to grow because of its proximity to Highway 99.
While much of Modesto has been built out, county supervisors see the agricultural areas around Salida as a place to add businesses and jobs. Many Modesto residents now make long commutes to jobs in the Bay Area.
Several years ago, Modesto city officials eyed the Salida area for future expansion. But efforts to expand Modesto's sphere of influence were shot down by the Stanislaus County Local Agency Formation Commission, according to Modesto City Council member Kenni Friedman.
The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to consider the Salida Community Plan Update this month, when a draft environmental impact report on it is released. The update is supposed to guide development in the area for the next 20 years. The Salida Community Plan update was first presented to the Board of Supervisors a year ago and projected a great deal of residential growth. But supervisors sent planners back to the drawing board, saying they wanted more business development. Of the 5,500 acres that are part of the community plan, about 1,800 acres would be set aside for business parks, according to the new plan, which officials were hesitant to discuss. The new plan would allow Salida to grow to about 21,000 by 2020, down from original estimates of 37,000, according to the Modesto Bee.
Modesto supports the revised plan for Salida because it would increase local employment, according to both Blom and Friedman. A tax agreement for the area provides that approximately 75% of the tax revenue will go to the county, and 25% to Modesto for providing water and other services. "We want to partner with the county on this," Friedman said.
Frohman said that the Salida Community Plan will not be affected by the Farmland Stabilization Initiative if it passes, because the area has already been designated in the county's general plan for growth.
Blom disagreed. "If it passes, it will waste all the time we've spent [on Salida]," he said.
Bruce Frohman and Kenni Friedman, Modesto City Council, (209) 571-5169
Nick Blom, Stanislaus County supervisor (209) 525-6560
Ron Freitas, Director of Planning and Community Development, Stanislaus County, (209) 525-6330