Central Valley

Central Valley growth panel tackles urban sprawl

FRESNO -- A regional advisory panel moved Friday to strengthen a planned crackdown on urban sprawl in response to recent state laws attacking global climate change.

The vote by the San Joaquin Valley Blueprint Regional Advisory Committee means that valley counties, most of which already have mapped out tentative plans for boosting housing densities over the next four decades, could be asked to redouble those efforts.

In effect, the panel raised the ante on the state-funded blueprint planning effort, an eight-county attempt to sketch a broad vision of the valley at midcentury. If the committee's recommendation is formally adopted, new housing could have an average of 31 people per acre, compared with 13 under current plans.

Earlier talks ended with the eight counties adopting visions that, on the whole, called for 18 people per acre of new development. Since then, however, Gov. Schwarzenegger has signed a new law, Senate Bill 375, that links local planning with a mandate to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Higher housing densities help that effort by reducing the number of miles people drive.

Regional leaders at Friday's meeting -- which drew public officials, business leaders and activists from up and down the valley -- appeared to take the new law as a signal that what was already being done would not suffice.

Some called for even more drastic action than what was voted on Friday.

"I don't think we're going far enough," said John Donaldson, a former Fresno County supervisor representing the League of Women Voters.

Whether the proposed higher densities will make it into official policy remains to be seen. Stanislaus County political leaders have balked at endorsing any attempt to increase densities beyond what current local land-use plans call for. Elsewhere, the people-per-acre average from the first round of talks ranged from 15 in Madera County to 28 in Merced County. Fresno settled on 25, Kings 24 and Tulare 17.

John Wright, former Clovis planning and development director, said the region's leaders could avoid trouble later if they use the blueprint process to bring land-use and greenhouse-gas emissions into compliance with the new law.

"The blueprint will become the vehicle for counties and cities to try to comply with what is the law, not something that may be," Wright said.

Failing to meet the greenhouse-gas targets called for under SB 375 and other laws could mean that local agencies will miss out on transportation, housing and other incentive funds tied by the law to the targets.

Several more months of meetings and other discussions are scheduled before any final votes are taken on the blueprint plans. First among them is a public meeting planned for late January by the Modesto-based Great Valley Center, a nonprofit group coordinating the blueprint effort.

After that, center President David Hosley said, two political leaders from each county will be asked to vote on a final blueprint plan. Only then will the finished products be presented to the counties and their cities for consideration.

"I think we will be lucky if it happens by summer," Hosley said.