Valley cities welcomed housing boom with open arms

Whether cities in the foreclosure-plagued Northern San Joaquin Valley can help avoid future disaster with better planning is up for debate. But many experts say it's worth a try.

Superheated construction activity helped drive cities in Merced, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties to expand their boundaries 45 percent in the past 18 years, according to a McClatchy newspaper's review of annexation data. The 22 cities' populations grew 53 percent, on average, in the same time frame.

Progress shifted to shame when the flurry ground to a halt and the three counties suddenly found themselves at the epicenter of the nation's mortgage default crisis.

Assuming leaders are making the link, have they learned any lessons from the building boom and bust?

"They were all wanting to let it rip," said Max Neiman, senior fellow at the Public Policy

Institute of California. "Understandably so. The opportunity was there (and officials said), 'Let's let the housing market go gangbusters.' (The bust) gives us an opportunity for more deliberate, thought-out planning."

Urban expansion since 1990 in terms of city limits ranged from 7 percent in Dos Palos, the region's smallest city, to 250 percent in Patterson, according to the McClatchy review. Patterson's default rate of nearly one in five homes is second only to 21 percent in Lathrop, whose 175 percent sprawl trails only Patterson's.

Bay Area proximity noted

The valley's West Side produced five of the region's six fastest-growing cities in terms of population: Los Banos (162 percent), Lathrop (157 percent), Newman (155 percent), Tracy (151 percent) and Patterson (146 percent). That makes some sense, because the West Side is closer to Bay Area jobs, said David Hosley, president of the Great Valley Center in Modesto.

"If you're going to have part of the region grow, it's probably best to put it closest to where people work," Hosley said. Reducing climate-changing emissions through decreased driving is central to smart growth planning, as well as new legislation.

But demand for housing dollars, not effective planning, drove the valley's rapid growth over the past couple of decades, several experts say. Now we have acres of single-family homes replacing farmland on cities' fringes -- many neighborhoods pocked by bank-owned homes with ill-kept yards.

"It's hard to separate out how much of that is due to poor planning or to the general economic decline," Neiman said. "Those places that have the most dramatic impact were probably overbuilt. That's the bad planning part. But a number of things were converging. The cliche is 'the perfect storm.' "

John Wilbanks, president of Oakdale-based RRM Design Group, agreed. "If not for the financial collapse, people would still be living in their homes, enjoying their neighborhoods," he said. "But something I've always pushed in planning philosophy is there is way too much reliance on the market for land-use decisions.

"The market is a short-term condition," Wilbanks continued. "Decisions ought to focus on a long-term vision. And that requires making decisions that sometimes are not going to be popular in the short term."

Taking a step back

Long-term visions are captured in each community's general plan, a document detailing growth goals for the next few years or decades. Agencies periodically update such plans, usually with help from consultants and input from neighbors. For example, Riverbank is nearing a final vote on a revamped general plan that envisions more than doubling its population of 21,700, to 55,200, by 2025. Modesto's urban growth review process allows the city to take a look every couple of years without redoing the umbrella general plan.

"Good planning could help to prevent what one might call the oversupply of housing stock," said David Early, founding principal of Berkeley-based Design, Commu- nity and Environment. "This is a great opportunity to take a step back and look at our planning successes and failures over the last 10 to 15 years. We can learn from the things we've done and retool to try to create sustainable communities."

Others say the valley's history suggests too little thoughtful planning and too much bowing to developers promising tax revenue.

"We haven't seen good examples in the valley, where we can point and say, 'Look what they did,' " said Mike Darnell, California policy director for the American Farmland Trust. "Most (communities) have not been efficient."

Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties each lost more than 21,000 acres of agricultural land in the dozen years preceding 2004, and Merced County lost nearly 17,500 acres, according to the state's Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program.

Good plans fell by wayside

Some decent growth plans were set aside during the latest building frenzy, Wilbanks noted, suggesting a flaw in even the best-laid plans.

"They adopt general plans but the first guy who comes in simply files for an amendment and gets (leaders') support to change the plan based on the market," he said. "It's all about the moment."

Neiman said leaders must resist the allure of quick cash from short-sighted projects. In addition to sprawling subdivisions, experts often decry generic strip malls that are impossible to reach on foot.

"Communities need to be circumspect about how much to grow," Neiman said, "and make reasonable judgments on what that stock of housing ought to be."

People throughout Stanislaus County last year showed cynicism about planning leadership. By a 2-to-1 margin, voters seized the power to approve subdivisions in unincorporated areas from county supervisors by approving Measure E.

"The responsibility to prevent the San Jose-ation of Stanislaus County is clearly that of the cities and their current political leaders," said Denny Jackman, the initiative's co-author and a former Modesto councilman. "Will they reflect the people they represent or will they succumb to short-term, reactive government that loses ground, literally?"

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