A suspicious public confronted city leaders Monday night, charging that Modesto officials are paving the way for development even though it's been just three months since residents rejected growth-related ballot measures.
About 60 people attended the Planning Commission meeting, where the commission heard a report on proposed changes to the city general plan, the document that guides city growth policies.
The changes would switch how land in seven areas could be developed. For example, in one area, land designated for residential development could be switched to commercial development.
The commission took no action on the proposed general plan changes. They will require City Council approval.
Slow-growth advocates and farmers fear the changes will open the door to development and threaten prime farmland. Their passionate comments showed that even with building at a standstill, development remains a flashpoint for controversy.
Critics say the proposed general plan changes fly in the face of what voters told the city Nov. 3, when five growth-related ballot measures failed. Voters said they didn't want the city to extend sewer service to five areas outside the city, a move that eventually could have led to 3,000 acres of development.
The votes were advisory, meaning that city leaders don't have to heed voters' wishes.
Critics say the proposed general plan changes will lead to annexing some of those areas into the city, the opposite of what voters said they wanted.
At the meeting, Planning Division Manager Patrick Kelly told the audience that the proposed general plan changes have nothing to do with annexing the land into the city.
Kelly said the council last year instructed city staff to change development restrictions on some land as a way to bring jobs and businesses that wound generate tax revenue for Modesto. But, said Kelly, the proposed change to the general plan "does not include annexations and it doesn't initiate any annexation process."
The audience disagreed.
Audience member Brad Barker called the timing of the proposed general plan changes "horrible," noting that it's been just 12 weeks since voters nixed the growth ballot measures.
"The people of Modesto do not want to expand at this time," Barker said. "We have empty storefronts all over the city. We don't need to be adding more stores out in the orchards."
Fred Girard told commissioners, "What I've been hearing is that you've taken the areas voted down by the public and given it a different name. It appears to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors."
Planning commissioners expressed sensitivity to slow-growth interests, but said they were interested in adopting plans that would ensure responsible development.
"We have heard it loud and clear and we will take everyone's comments into consideration," said Commissioner Tom Berglund.
Planning Commissioner John Sanders said he shared the public's concerns about the rapidly changing city.
"I'm not one who can say that at 225,000, that (the city) is better than it was at 35,000," Sanders said. "Growth is not inevitable. It's something we have to keep a close look at."