New Merced planning commissioner has longtime ties

New Planning Commissoner Lawrence Zuercher
SUN-STAR PHOTO BY MARCI STENBERG New Planning Commissoner Lawrence Zuercher Merced Sun-Star

Lawrence Zuercher has seen Merced change from a place where he used to ride horses on Olive Avenue to a city that’s close to hitting the mark of 100,000 residents.

The long-time resident was appointed Monday to the seven-member Planning Commission, where he’ll bring decades of experience in land-use and growth.

Zuercher, who has a Ph.D. in land-use planning wrote his dissertation about the effects of Petaluma’s managed growth plan adopted in 1972.

He joins Dwight Amey and Mary Ward, who were reappointed during the meeting, along with Bob Acheson, Richard Cervantes, Carole McCoy and Tena Williams.

The Sun-Star caught up with Zuercher on Tuesday for a question-and-answer session to get his thoughts on Merced’s past and future.

Q: Why did you apply to be a planning commissioner?

This is an area that I’ve been interested in all my life. I’ve taught planning at universities, and I’ve worked with a lot of developers on planning project in various communities throughout the United States and actually several places in the world.

I’m retired. I have time on my hands, and I think I might be able to contribute.

Q. How do you plan to approach your job as planning commissioner?

I’m going to go and find out exactly how things are done in Merced and fit in accordingly. I will carefully review projects when they come before me. My whole understanding of it is that projects need to fit in well with the general plan for the city. I’m fairly familiar with the general plan for Merced, so I’ll be working with that to make sure things people want to do fit in with that.

Q: What do you want to see more of in Merced, and what do you want to see less of here?

At this point in time, I think that’s a question that I don’t want to go out on a limb and make a statement on.

I think that growth and development basically follow the needs and the economics of the community. We’re at a point in time right where there’s a lot of re-evaluation going on on that. We’ll just have to see where that falls out. I do believe that good planning precedes rapid construction and construction of anything, so this is a good time to be doing planning for the future when we don’t have the pressure of make decisions almost instantly because things are going so fast.

Q: What’s your opinion on the development boom and bust Merced has seen in the last five years?

I think it tracked very much with what went on across the nation. I actually had some projects going in other parts of the country and in other parts of California at that time. When there’s opportunities people who do development work see those opportunities, and they move into that area and begin to try to take advantage of that situation.

When those opportunities go away, they slow down and wait for them to come back. I think that’s pretty much what’s happening right now. Those that can are going to sit still and basically hold their projects until they can bring them back to life. Those that can’t survive are probably not going to be in the next wave that comes alone.

But, you know, development is something that is cyclical. That’s the way the economy works. It tracks the economy pretty much.

Is there anything Merced could do or should have done to avoid this situation?

I think it would be expecting an awful lot. Merced acted very much like almost every other community in terms of looking at opportunities that came along. When you’re talking Planning Commission and when you’re talking developing of the city, these issues are brought to the city. The city does some economic development arms that are out there looking for opportunities for people to come in, and that’s good.

But in the end, it has to be a decision by someone who’s willing to risk their venture capital and go out and do these projects. They’re the one that brings them to the city.

If they don’t bring them, as they’re not right now -- there’s not very many coming in right now -- then the city can’t do a lot to make those come forward.

When they do come forward and they’re coming forward in large quantities, the city has to be very careful and make sure that only the best ones come through.

That’s going to be the real challenge, when we begin to cycle back up that projects that are good quality get built and not just every project that comes into the city.

Q: You'll be voting on the Wal-Mart distribution center. How do you plan to handle that decision?

I plan to handle it by not making a comment about it right now. I’ll look over it very carefully. As I said before, I’ll follow the general plan, that’s my guide. I’ll keep my eyes and ears open and listen to comments. Then I’ll make a vote on it.

Q: Tell me about your dissertation.

It was on growth management. That’s now called smart growth. I helped with the growth management of Petaluma, Calif. Along with Ramapo, New York, they were the two first growth management cities in the United States.

I did an analysis of the impact of growth management on Petaluma to see whether or not if affected the growth of the city.

It didn’t have any effect. It didn’t have a negative effect. It didn’t have a positive effect. I don’t know long-term. I only studied over a six year period of time. The truth of the matter is I don’t know long-term.

During that six years, there were never enough (building) permits requested that it met the cap. So the cap absolutely had no effect on growth because unless you reach the cap and have to put it in place, you can’t tell whether or not growth management was going to have a detrimental effect.

You can speculate as to whether having growth management deterred some people going into the city and deciding to try to develop.

What do you think of smart growth today? Does it have value?I think smart growth is a good idea. Cities need to try to plan. The idea of growth management and smart growth is that cities need to try to be able to budget so they can do capital improvements to anticipate growth and where it needs to be put in.

(Smart growth) is used improperly is when it’s used as a lever to try to basically get more things than you should be getting out of a project. Growth management is a tool for the city to keep its finances in sync with development and make sure utilities are anticipated.

Growth management and smart growth never were intended to be a limiting factor on growth. They were intended to be something that kept the city in sync with growth.

Reporter Scott Jason can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or sjason@mercedsun-star.com.

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