Determined to maintain its identity as a "nice valley town," the City of Reedley has adopted a specific plan that contains many of the precepts of traditional neighborhood design. The plan, adopted in January, covers Reedley's future growth areas — about 1,200 acres outside the city limits but inside the sphere of influence.
The Ahwahnee Principles, something of a bible for New Urbanists, provides a basis for the plan, as does a 1999 report called Landscape of Choice. The latter report, adopted by a huge variety of Fresno County interest groups, urged more compact development to spare farmland.
The Reedley Specific Plan is heavy on principles of efficient development. It permits single-family lots as small as 5,000 square feet and requires new projects to be within 660 feet of existing or already approved development. Annexation for residential development is allowed only when at least 80% of residential land inside the city limits is already built. As for design, the plan calls for development around neighborhood "activity nodes" that offer stores, offices and public spaces. Houses can be set back from the sidewalk as little as 10 feet if they have front porches. Garages should be recessed or detached. Commercial buildings should have parking in the rear and no large, blank walls.
Reedley is a Fresno County town of 22,000 people surrounded by fruit orchards. Although it lies about 12 miles east of Highway 99, the area has experienced growth pressures, especially as people who work in Fresno look for homes outside the city. Applying the concepts of New Urbanism, which are mostly targeted to denser metropolitan areas, to a city like Reedley provides an interesting test. And city officials have tailored the concepts to their town by allowing builders to bypass some density and design standards.
The plan was written with three goals in mind: to preserve farmland while accommodating urban growth; to preserve air quality; and to encourage urban design that creates a strong sense of community while respecting the town's historic design. Building consensus for such a plan, however, was not easy in a town where recent development has been characterized by low-density, ranch-style homes on cul-de-sacs.
"It was a very big educational process to get our citizens committee to understand how these concepts work and why these concepts are preferable to what we had been doing in the past," said Michael Olmos, assistant city manager. "Getting that buy-in was really important."
Olmos, who was community developer director at the time, other staff members and consultant Karl Schoettler, of Visalia's Collins & Schoettler, spent months educating the Specific Plan Committee, which had an open membership. Schoettler showed countless slides to make abstract concepts more tangible.
"We tried to keep it real visual and unbureaucratic and unplanning-like. I think that paid off," Schoettler said.
Planners also arranged a bus tour to traditional neighborhood developments in San Jose, Mountain View, Suisun City, Davis and Sacramento. The tour allowed people to walk around recent development projects based on New Urbanist principles. Showing some of the naysayers these successful developments helped diffuse opposition, Schoettler said.
The months spent educating committee members, planning commissioners and city councilmembers was time well spent, said Olmos, who was already convinced of the need to overhaul land use practices.
"I didn't realize early on how hard it would be to change what we had been doing," Olmos said. "You have to show people — present them with information and present them with the studies. … If you just go in and hit them cold with it, their first reaction is that it doesn't look like what we've been doing in the past, and, therefore, there must be something wrong with it."
In the end, much of the debate was over housing density and street widths. City officials sought a minimum of five homes per acre to conserve farmland and because that density is less expensive for the city to serve than recent developments of about three units per acre, Olmos said. Representatives of the development and real estate communities pushed for measuring all developed combined by the five-units-per-acre goal, rather than requiring individual developments to meet the minimum. The City Council decided to require every project to have at least five units per acre, but also to allow developers of less dense projects to pay an in-lieu fee for preserving open space or farmland. The amount of the fee remains undetermined.
The streets issue centered on safety and emergency vehicle access. Planners proposed reducing typical residential street width from 40 feet (curb to curb) to 32 feet to slow traffic, reduce asphalt, allow room for planting strips, and bring houses closer together. The City Council settled on 35 feet and accepted the concept of planting strips.
The city is now in the implementation mode. Officials are preparing amendments to the city's general plan, zoning ordinance and subdivision regulations to reflect the specific plan. The city has also begun reviewing the first project within the specific plan area — a 236-unit, single-family-home subdivision on the east side of town.
Developer Robert Wood of CSE Homes has proposed a project of about 4 units per acre on a grid pattern. "It's going to be a hybrid that looks like New Urbanism, but it's really not going to be more dense," he said.
Homebuyers in the Central Valley expect decent sized lots and usable backyards, Wood said. And, because of sweltering summers, homebuyers dislike two-story houses that are expensive to cool.
Whether the city eventually accepts Wood's proposal — and whether it charges him an in-lieu fee — is uncertain. Community Development Director Fred Brusuelas said city officials are sensitive to market demands because they want the first project in the specific plan area to be successful.
"I think if the density were placed in a metropolitan area, say the Bay Area or Los Angeles, you would not have trouble selling the lots. But in the Reedley area, homeowners expect a little bigger lot," Brusuelas said.
Wood said Reedley can take New Urbanist concepts only so far because the city is primarily a commuter town whose residents work 20 miles away in Fresno and there is no public transit. Thus, residents remain dependent on automobiles.
Still, Wood indicated he could work with the new specific plan. "You have to reach out of the box a little bit in product design, which is expensive. I can't take what I would build in other valley towns to Reedley," Wood said.
Steve Hoyt, San Joaquin Valley project manager for the Local Government Commission, said Reedley is taking New Urbanist principles farther than just about any other city in the region. The Local Government Commission, an independent entity whose members drafted the Ahwahnee Principles, helped steer a $35,000 federal air quality grant to Reedley for the specific plan process.
"It's not all that common for small communities to do specific plans. Not all cities are as visionary as Reedley. And, really, specific plans are expensive," Hoyt said.
The specific plan builds on existing assets: a downtown that is not as neglected as many others in the valley, a community college and the Kings River, which runs through town. A new rails-to-trails project has also provided a boon. The city recently completed conversion of the abandoned rail line to a multi-use trail and greenbelt. The 80-foot-wide right-of-way runs smack through the middle of town, providing access to the college, the high school and downtown. The trail has already proven so popular that officials are talking about extending it, Olmos said.
While the specific plan has drawn the interest of many planners and has won an award from the local chapter of the American Planning Association, the most controversial development proposal in town lies outside the area — and the principles — of the specific plan. Wal-Mart has proposed a store for the western entrance to town. City planners expect to release an environmental impact report on the big box store this month, with a decision on the project likely this fall.
Michael Olmos and Fred Brusuelas, City of Reedley, (559) 637-4200.
Karl Schoettler, Collins & Schoettler, (559) 734-8737.
Robert Wood, CSE Homes, (559) 447-3080.
Steve Hoyt, Local Government Commission, (916) 448-1198.