Ben Hulse is director of the San Joaquin County Community Development Department. Long a major agricultural center, San Joaquin County has seen subdivisions rapidly replace farms. The population has grown 63% in 20 years to about 583,000. Earlier this year, the county Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted all 13 of Hulse's recommendations regarding implementation of the eight-year-old general plan.
Hulse recommended basing general plan implementation on four values: preserving farmland and natural resources; accommodating growth in cities and communities along transportation routes; creating economic development strategies; and identifying and implementing urban limit lines. He also urged preparation of several follow-up reports and ordinances, as well as an approach that includes all cities, agencies and organizations in the planning process.
CP&DR What spurred your report and recommendations to the Board of Supervisors?
Hulse The county's general plan anticipated a review every 5 to 10 years. This was first review.
The board unanimously approved all 13 recommendations contained in the staff report. There are six directives to preserve agriculture in this county. There are four that are directed towards priorities in communication, coordination, cooperation. There is one directed toward economic development and two towards growth and the need to establish urban limit lines.
It's a fairly comprehensive package so that we preserve agricultural land and our resources. We've had to initiate the communication, cooperation and coordination that's necessary with all of the cities and with all of the respective agencies so that we have long-lasting programs. We want everybody to buy into the programs so that they in fact do last.
CP&DR Why is economic development important when you want to save farmland?
Hulse It is very important because we can't continue in this county to have the same sort of development as we've had in the past and pay the bills in the county; you can't preserve agricultural lands if all the people that move here just have low-paying jobs. People with low-paying jobs put more demands on all of the facilities and services of the county to the point where the county then can't afford to preserve the agricultural lands. And it makes good sense if you're going to, as we suggested, direct growth to the cities and to the urban unincorporated areas that have been designated … to be sure that the cities can afford the infrastructure. Because if they can't, then what happens is instead of intensifying growth in the urban areas, and accommodating that growth, it's just gonna spread right out into the agricultural areas.
It's important to have all fronts going at the same time in order to preserve agricultural lands. You have to have successful urban areas to have successful rural areas. Interrelated to that is the need to establish new criteria and standards for annexations, which involves the Local Agency Formation Commission, and to establish urban limit lines so we can provide community separators and identify long-term growth needs for all of the urban areas. … If the cities are either unwilling or unable, either because of infrastructure or because of electorate growth control measures, then the county has to determine whether or not the county wants to establish a process for accommodating that growth.
I've prepared general plans either as a member of staff or as a director in five counties. This is the fifth. I relate to everyone the need to look into the future and to be cognizant of the potential adverse affects of growth in the future early so that you can prepare for it.
CP&DR Can you give me an example?
Hulse In Sonoma County in 1975 we told the Board of Supervisors that if the growth in the cities continued and the growth in the county continued, even under the least impact scenario, that Highway 101 was going to be bumper to bumper from the south county line to Santa Rosa by 1995. It was a 20-year projection. The board laughed at us. They said, "That's ridiculous, Highway 101 will never be bumper to bumper. You guys are trying to scare everyone and the scare tactics won't work." Well, we were wrong. It was 1990, not 1995, when it was bumper to bumper. And now no one is laughing. It's a problem that had it been addressed in 1975 by the entire county and all of the cities, something could have been done.
Well, we want to preserve agricultural land in this county, and we need all of the cities and all of the agencies to be involved in making that determination.
All I did was spin off the work of the Great Valley Center and Rudi Platzek, who is a planner who has studied all this. And you'll find that I've identified the Great Valley Center activities in the report, both in economic development and preservation of agricultural lands, and potential growth impacts. As a planner, I learned a long time ago, plagiarize any chance you get.
CP&DR Steal all the great ideas you can.
Hulse Hey, it's Planning Survival 101. Anyhow, I looked at what the potential is in this county, and you'll see a couple of scenarios [in my report]. In particular, you'll see the year 2080. The State of California list of important farmlands identifies a little over 630,000 acres as important statewide. That doesn't include all the grazing lands in the county. We started looking ahead and identified what would happen if the population projections for this county to the year 2080 would take us up to a little over 3 million — what would happen if development continued in the same fashion as it has in the past? We would wind up with about 210,000 acres [of important farmland] remaining in this county. That's a loss of 420,000 acres. In addition, the CalFed project proposes to reduce farmland by 120,000 acres in the Delta and convert it to habitat. You add that to the 420,000 you wind up with 540,000. You quickly see that there is only 90,000 acres left.
Projections show that by the year 2080, if growth continues in the same fashion it has been and the population projections are realized, that the Central Valley will be importing food.
CP&DR That's hard to believe
Hulse It was hard for the Board of Supervisors in Sonoma County to believe that Highway 101 would be bumper to bumper.
CP&DR Have you made presentations to the cities yet?
Hulse Oh yeah. I've given presentations to Lodi, Tracy, Lathrop, Stockton. The other three [Manteca, Escalon and Ripon] are scheduled.
CP&DR What was the reception?
Hulse We're just starting, and the reception for the most part I would say is amicable. Enthusiastic in a couple of instances. As a result of a prior presentation, our Board of Supervisors went down to the City of Lathrop and met with them jointly to talk about community separators, urban limit lines and an annexation proposed by the City of Lathrop because it appeared contrary to the board's principles.
CP&DR Is that the annexation for the wastewater treatment plant?
Hulse. Yeah. The newspaper reported … that they agreed to disagree. As far as I'm concerned, we had several opportunities and they were all realized. The Board of Supervisors going to the City of Lathrop and sitting down with them and discussing the specific issues of community separators and urban limit lines and, in particular, the annexation was excellent. We realized an opportunity because we had dialogue and interchange between the City of Lathrop and the Board of Supervisors, even in an area where they didn't reach agreement. The very fact that they were willing to listen to each other's position and to consider their positions and be in the same room at the same time is a tremendous event. It opens up the lines of communication for the future. The first city in this county said we will direct our staff to meet with county staff to identify community separators, urban limit lines, and a program for implementation. The door opened.
CP&DR Why don't you use the term "greenbelt?"
Hulse I chose the term "community separator" because in certain quarters greenbelt and open space carry negative connotations. I didn't want to deal with that negative side. Also, I chose it because I want community separators to be identified as having functions that are of benefit for the entire community. Community separators are to preserve agricultural land, to preserve natural resources, to preserve streams. They are resource utilization areas. … We also need to direct people away from hazardous areas, like floodplains, and we need to provide recreation areas, parks, trails, even linear parks. And those are all utilitarian uses, beneficial uses, that a community separator can provide.
Now, we did not identify habitat conservation as an additional benefit because it may or may not be there. We didn't say that this does provide open space and greenbelt areas as a benefit. That's a side benefit, it's not a utilitarian benefit. It also helps communities establish their boundaries and their individual identification, and that's again a side benefit. There are a lot of side benefits. It's easier to sell something to critical thinkers when they can see the utility behind it. If it is esoteric, it's hard to get them to buy in. …
A number of people have attributed everything that's going on here to me. I'm just a catalyst. I brought some experience into this position that will benefit this county, and I made some recommendations, some of which are very controversial. Two years ago this wouldn't have happened.
CP&DR What has changed?
Hulse All of the communities have become more educated, more aware. What I've been able to discuss with [the supervisors] has had some influence on them. But I think probably more than anything the fact that we were able to put together a comprehensive report and identify the real true potential for disaster in the future. We realized the need to get started now, and we will. One of our supervisors said you can have all the words and pretty pictures in the world, but if you don't have the political will it isn't going to happen. I've seen that already with the board.
CP&DR You can do all this planning and come up with progressive policies, but how much influence does Sacramento County and the Bay Area have on you?
Hulse It's already here. If you look around, to the west, to the south, there are growth control measures all over. And so the pressure to develop in this county is increasing. We're not getting pressure out of Sacramento County because Sacramento County is pretty much accommodating the growth. … It's unlike to the west, where more jobs are being created than housing and so we're getting tremendous pressure to build housing in this county.
If Stanislaus County has a growth control measure, it will provide additional pressure on this county. The board's policy is to accommodate the growth, but to accommodate it in the cities. Now that was adopted in '92, and my view of the county's general plan is that it is a good general plan, a good solid foundation … we just need to implement it more.
I've been doing this work for the last 30 years. Twenty-five years ago we were proposing "smart growth."
CP&DR A lot of people seem to think that smart growth is novel. Do you think it's just solid planning?
Hulse It's just traditional. If you go through areas that have developed in the United States along transportation routes, railroads or rivers, what are you going to find? You'll find compact communities. Of course, all over Europe — fly over Italy — you'll see how well preserved the agricultural areas are.
CP&DR Do you have a timeline of some sort?
Hulse Yes. You'll notice that one of the directives says there is a sense of urgency. I saw a window of opportunity of two years. It's down to a year and a half.
CP&DR How did you pick two years?
Hulse That's just my own evaluation. I've been looking at the political, legal, administrative and technical sides. Technically, we're finally able to identify what the potential disaster was without a doubt so that I could share that potential with everyone. Legally, we need to identify all of the legal sides that are necessary in order to implement the plan, whether it's to charge conversion fees or to purchase development rights to ensure agricultural lands are available for long-term periods if not for perpetuity. And then politically, this county is ready for it now. We can comprehensively bring everybody in and deal with it as the community of San Joaquin County, not as the Board of Supervisors and each individual city.
CP&DR Managing Editor Paul Shigley spoke with Ben Hulse at his office in Stockton.