Central Valley

Valley seeking to stall sprawl

A study of growth in the Central Valley predicts unchecked sprawl over eight counties.

By the year 2050, the population of Fresno County will have doubled to almost 2 million. But development patterns haven't changed.

Endless subdivisions of single-family homes still rule the landscape. Farmland still gives way to tile roofs and fescue lawns in one gulp after another of 160 acres each.

The Fresno/Clovis metropolitan area has swallowed Easton and is creeping to the outskirts of Sanger.

Farther south, Kingsburg, Selma and Fowler have grown into one knotty mass and have nearly merged with Parlier and Reedley.

That vision of the future, laid out in newly issued computer-generated maps, is something that participants in a current eight-county planning effort say they want the region to avoid -- along with the traffic congestion, air pollution and other consequences of unchecked urban sprawl.

"If we keep building the way we've been building, then that's likely to be what we'll look like," said Clovis planning and development director John Wright, who is on a committee that is shepherding Fresno County's slice of the state-funded San Joaquin Valley Blueprint Planning Process.

Like their counterparts in other counties, local planners with the Council of Fresno County Governments will reach out to the public in coming months for help reshaping the "status quo" outlook reflected by the maps -- and for reaction to various alternative visions.

The alternatives will place varying amounts of emphasis on priorities such as preserving farmland and environmentally sensitive land, such as wetlands.

They will also examine strategies such as limiting growth to existing urban areas or establishing new towns along key corridors such as Interstate 5 and Highway 168.

But the centerpiece will be the status quo maps, with their unblinking forecast of a county dominated by urban sprawl at midcentury.

"The story we want to tell the public right now, I guess, is if we continue with business as usual, this is what the [urban area's] footprint will look like," said Barbara Steck, senior transportation planner for the council and staff coordinator of the Fresno County portion of the blueprint effort.

The public will get its chance to weigh in at a series of meetings tentatively planned for April.

The next month, the council's governing board -- composed of mayors and other representatives from the county's 15 cities and the Board of Supervisors -- is scheduled to vote on which alternative best fits the county's own preferred vision of its future.

After that, vision documents from all eight Valley counties -- the others are San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced, Madera, Kings, Tulare and Kern -- will be merged into a comprehensive set of guidelines for accommodating 4 million more people, more than double the current number, without turning wide swaths of the Valley into new versions of Los Angeles or San Jose.

The nonprofit Great Valley Center, based in Modesto, will coordinate that part of the process. But details on the implementation, including new land-use maps and other legally binding documents, such as general plans, will remain mostly vested with individual cities and counties.

There appears to be broad consensus that the "business as usual" future depicted by the status quo maps is not acceptable, at least in Fresno County. Even the building industry's representatives are on board, up to a point.

"There's a lot of concern that development will chew up open space and farmland," said Michael Prandini, president and chief executive officer of the Building Industry Association of the San Joaquin Valley.

Prandini said builders generally are "OK with denser development," which could include smaller home lots and more condominiums, townhouses and apartments.

But Prandini warned that future home buyers will have the last word: "If you set up a pattern of development that no one wants to buy, then everyone is in trouble."

Besides higher densities, another possible outcome of the blueprint process is a conceptual design for a new transportation corridor called the Metro Rural Loop, which would encircle Madera and the Fresno-Clovis metropolitan area.

One leg might link Highway 65 east of Visalia with Highway 152 near Chowchilla; another could sweep the west side along Highway 145.

Outwardly, it looks like a typical urban beltway, designed for cars and surrounded by sprawl. But Keith Bergthold, Fresno's assistant development director and the loop's leading advocate, says it would be focused on mass transit and accompanied by strict development controls.

Moreover, he said, it is intended to serve as "a metaphor for cooperation" among the region's fractious counties, cities and towns.

Madera County Planning Director Rayburn Beach supports the loop, or at least the part that would serve the eastern edge of his county.

But he is a skeptic on the value of the regional blueprint as a whole, preferring to leave such planning efforts to local communities and county governments.

He describes the blueprint process, led by committees of planners, public officials and other local leaders, as reaching only "a particular group of people in every county," he said. "It didn't reach out to the very poor. It didn't reach out to the day-to-day builders."

Nevertheless, blueprint participants say their goal is to build public and institutional support so that, by the time they finish, their vision of the future will be immune from future attack, whether from shortsighted planners or rogue city councils. They also hope that state financial aid for purposes such as transportation or housing will be somehow tied to compliance with the guidelines that come out of the blueprint.

Clovis planner Wright sees reason to hope that the effort will succeed, even if it means confronting a history of sprawl dating back at least to World War II.

"They've done it in Europe," he said. "So you can't say there's nowhere else in the world where they've done this kind of thing."