Disunity at Modesto's highest level on how to approach growth contributed to the city's embarrassingly low score in a recent university study.
Modesto also suffers from poor public support for planning and progressive transportation policies, University of California at Davis researchers found after looking at the Central Valley's 100 cities.
"Achieving Sustainability in California's Central Valley" concluded that its largest cities embrace the best smart-growth policies, with Fresno, Sacramento, Stockton and Bakersfield ranking among the top nine. Modesto provided the sole exception, coming way down the list at No. 55.
Modesto, by far the largest of Stanislaus County's nine cities, has the county's worst policies for sustainability, the study concludes.
Researchers hoped to assess cities' capacity for managing economic, social and environmental problems. "Sustainability" has become a planning buzzword in the vein of "smart growth" and "new urbanism."
Right time for study
Associate Professor Mark Lubell said the time was ripe for a valleywide assessment because the region is poised for phenomenal growth. His researchers interviewed planning officials and combed through cities' general plans looking for antisprawl policies.
Oakdale (No. 10), Waterford and Newman (tied for 13th), Riverbank (19), Turlock (25), Hughson and Ceres (tied for 38th) find themselves in the valley's top half, the study found. Patterson (51) and Modesto (55) don't.
Half of Merced County's six cities are ranked in the bottom half, with two in the bottom 10 (Dos Palos, 90, and Gustine, 95). Its highest ranked city, Merced, placed 28th.
Six of San Joaquin County's seven cities are ranked in the top half, with Tracy (6) and Stockton (7) in the top 10.
'Growing pains' show
Modesto scored so badly that researchers chose the city for one of seven case studies. Their conclusion: "In many ways, Modesto is challenged by the growing pains of transitioning from small town to big city."
According to the study, Modesto struggles with:
Poor resident participation in planning issues. "People don't get proactively involved. They just react to things they don't like," Lubell said, referring to the study's findings.
Disagreement among council members. Some favor pursuing sustainable objectives and others prefer letting the market dictate housing projects, the study found.
Fewer planning staff dedicated to sustainable ideals, partly because of budget problems.
Voters' rejection of transportation measures, "indicating a lack of willingness to pay for services potentially related to sustainability."
Researchers seized on comments by straight-talking Councilwoman Janice Keating to highlight the valley's reluctance to embrace sustainable ideals. In the case study, she says that cities' "desire to do no harm (to the environment) is often outweighed by our pocketbook," and explains that people move to the valley because they want large lots.
Pressure to change
Carol Whiteside, a former Modesto mayor and founder of the Great Valley Center, said leaders will be required to change their thinking by state climate-change rules.
"There will be lots of pressure on cities to reduce the size of their footprints and get smarter about land use," Whiteside said.
Councilman Garrad Marsh said researchers seemed to ignore Modesto's high density, or people per acre, a hallmark of sustainability. But Marsh agreed that Modesto deserved low marks for dragging its heels on progressive regional cooperation, including lackluster support for the San Joaquin Valley Blueprint.
"Even though some talk about the idea of needing to do regional planning, when it comes down to doing it, they all balk at the idea of losing control," Marsh said.
David Hosley, president of the Great Valley Center, urged leaders throughout Stanislaus County to seize opportunities to work with other agencies.
"Too often, we're focused on just providing survival services and can't see the value of long-range planning, when that will affect the people they're serving," Hosley said.
Whiteside noted similarities between the study and The Bee's 2008 smart growth survey of 60 cities and eight counties in the San Joaquin Valley. The UC Davis study looked at more agencies by adding the Sacramento Valley and focused more on green measures.
Some cities performed similarly in both, such as Oakdale, which ranked first in The Bee's survey and 10th in the UC Davis study. Differences in methodology, however, caused Turlock, Patterson and Modesto to tank in this year's study.
Fresno and Bakersfield, regarded as poster cities for sprawl, fared well in both studies. Authors of both explained reliance on policies, which help predict future health, as opposed to past performance.
"I think of this more as a signal of intentions," Lubell said, "and we all know the best of intentions can go awry."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2390.