Stanislaus County supervisors and developers have beaten farmland preservation advocates to the punch. Supervisors adopted a developer-written growth plan for the unincorporated community of Salida six months before voters are scheduled to decide on a slow growth/farmland protection initiative that actually was written first.
In response to the "Stamp Out Sprawl" (SOS) initiative, scheduled for the February 2008 ballot, developers drafted the "Salida Now" initiative and appeared to qualify it for the November 2007 ballot. However, the Board of Supervisors in August voted 3-2 simply to adopt the initiative. Supporters say the plan is very similar to a community plan update that has been in the works for years, provides infrastructure funding for industrial and commercial development, and moves Salida toward financial self-sufficiency.
Detractors say the quick drafting and adoption of the Salida Now initiative was a brazen political move that could backfire. "It's such an obvious, in-your-face flaunting of power," said Denny Jackman an (SOS) organizer and former Modesto councilman.
County Supervisor Jeff Grover conceded that the SOS initiative created a "feeling of real urgency." By adopting the Salida initiative, supervisors simply speeded up what had already been a long process. The Salida Now plan "is exactly what we've been working on and exactly what we've been planning in Salida," Grover said.
With a population of about 14,000, Salida is by far the largest town in unincorporated Stanislaus County. Salida's location along Highway 99 at the far northern end of the county puts it within long-distance commuting range of the Bay Area. County officials, however, have long wanted to see Salida grow as an employment center (see CP&DR Local Watch, May 2000). That has not happened and county officials say Salida is an approximately $3 million-a-year drain on the county.
Since 2000, advocates of farmland protection in Stanislaus County have been trying to get something on the ballot that resembles Ventura County's SOAR initiatives (see CP&DR Insight, May 2002; CP&DR, December 1998). Previous efforts failed, but in June 2006, farmland advocates presented the county with signed petitions on the SOS initiative. If approved, it would require voters to decide on the rezoning of unincorporated agricultural land. Supporters wanted to place the initiative on the November 2006 ballot. However, county supervisors ordered an analysis as allowed under the Election Code. By the time the analysis was completed two months later, the deadline for getting an initiative on the ballot had passed. Therefore, supervisors scheduled the SOS initiative for the next general election — February 2008.
The move bought Salida growth proponents time. Within months, the Salida Now initiative was on the streets, and in June supporters submitted an extraordinary number of signed petitions — enough to force a special election. The $400,000 signature-gathering campaign was financed almost entirely by developers, primarily Pacific Union Homes, Bates Properties and The Stringer Co., all of which have substantial interests in Salida. (An interesting twist in the initiative calls for development fees to reimburse the cost of preparing the initiative.)
Again, supervisors ordered an analysis. But when that analysis was presented to the board in August, supervisors somewhat unexpectedly adopted the initiative, a decision permitted by state law.
The decision studded some people. In an editorial under the headline "Maybe The Developers Really Do Run The County," the Modesto Bee opined: "In a single vote, three supervisors amended the county general plan, adopted the Salida Community Plan as firm for the next 25 years, and OK'd a development agreement with developers. And the three supervisors did all of this without giving the public any time to comprehend it all and to comment."
From a political standpoint, Jackman said, the supervisors' actions have been great for SOS supporters. First, supervisors delayed an election on the grass-roots SOS initiative, then they adopted the developer-funded Salida initiative with virtually no warning. SOS supporters could not have asked for better campaign material, Jackman said.
But Supervisor Grover, who represents Salida, makes no apologies. State demographers predict Stanislaus County will add 350,000 people and need at least 100,000 new jobs by 2030, Grover pointed out.
"We need areas to provide jobs all over the county," Grover said. The SOS initiative would "block everything in the unincorporated areas."
The lack of infrastructure in Salida is often cited as one reason for the lack of economic development. According to an analysis by county staff members of the initiative, "The proponents envision … the residential component subsidizing the initial infrastructure of the industrial and commercial areas and in later years the industrial/commercial area generating adequate revenue to maintain the infrastructure of both the residential and industrial/commercial area."
Grover said the initiative is very similar to a community plan update — in process for years — that was presented to supervisors in April. Adopting the plan simply keeps the decision-making in the hands of elected officials, he said.
In the Turlock-based Farmland Working Group's most recent newsletter, President Jeani Ferrari expressed doubt. "The supervisors' action gives the project to the developers, with no right to say ‘no' to the project as a whole, no matter what the environmental impact report and financial feasibility studies show," Ferrari wrote.
The initiative covers 3,383 acres, of which about 60% is designated for industrial, business park or commercial uses. Proponents say as many as 27,000 jobs could be created there. In addition, the plan permits up to 5,000 housing units in varying densities and sets aside 100 acres for a riverfront park.
The initiative contains no entitlements, said Stanislaus County Planning and Community Development Director Ron Freitas. The next step is for developers to prepare "development plans" that would be similar to specific plans. While the initiative did not undergo California Environmental Quality Act review, all development plans are subject to CEQA, Freitas said.
"We're stepping back and saying, ‘It's your development plan, you prepare it.' We will still retain the EIR consultant," Freitas said.
Loss of farmland is a significant issue. About 3,000 acres in the plan area are in agricultural production, and most of the territory is prime farmland. The initiative calls for housing developers to offset loss of farmland by buying acre-for-acre preservation easements on similar farmland elsewhere in the county. However, the mitigation requirement does not apply to non-residential development.
The initiative also calls for developers to contribute $150,000 to a Salida incorporation feasibility study.
Stanislaus County Supervisor Jeff Grover, (209) 525-6560.
Ron Freitas, Stanislaus County Planning and Community Development Department, (209) 525-6330.
Farmland Working Group, (209) 247-2503.