A regional panel of elected officials in the San Joaquin Valley has approved a growth blueprint that calls for increased housing densities in the eight-county region. In approving a plan for a new housing density of 6.8 units per acre for the region, the San Joaquin Valley Policy Council rejected an alternative of 10 units per acre that would have preserved more farmland and cut forecast greenhouse gas emissions.

The next step in the process is for the councils of government (COGs) to work with the 62 city councils and eight boards of supervisors in the region on implementing the blueprint through local general plans.

Whether the blueprint adopted in April was a significant step toward sustainability, a missed opportunity or simply a compromise that recognizes political limitations depends on one's viewpoint. What is not in dispute is that the blueprint marks the first regional planning document created by a collection of San Joaquin Valley public officials and other stakeholders.

"The process was, in my mind, critical in moving forward with planning in a more sustainable fashion," said Kern County Supervisor Michael Rubio, who chaired the Policy Council.

The Policy Council's 12-3 vote to approve a blueprint concluded a three-year process funded by Caltrans, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District and the eight COGs. The process included extensive public outreach and education overseen by the Blueprint Regional Advisory Council (BRAC), modeling by the University of California, Davis, Information Center for the Environment, and selection of a countywide growth blueprint by the COG in each of the eight counties (Kern, Tulare, Kings, Fresno, Madera, Merced, Stanislaus and San Joaquin). A desire to steer valley growth away from large-lot, automobile-dependent development patterns lies at the heart of the effort. The blueprint process is separate from, but complementary to, the state-run California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley, which has focused primarily on economic matters (see CP&DR Insight, May 2007; CP&DR, February 2006).

In November 2008, the BRAC, a 45-member panel composed of elected and appointed public officials plus a wide variety of advocates, considered three blueprint alternatives: Scenario A was based on the last 5 to 10 years of development, which has produced 4.3 new units per acre. Scenario B was based on the COG blueprints and set a new development standard of 6.8 units an acre. Scenario C emphasized transit alternatives and open space protection while calling for 10 units per acre. The BRAC endorsed the aggressive Scenario C.

The Policy Council then ordered the preparation of a B+ scenario that added more inter-county transportation infrastructure to Scenario B. The nearly 600 participants at a Valleywide Blueprint Summit in Fresno during January considered all four alternatives. Scenario C outpolled all three other scenarios combined. According to a UC Davis analysis, Scenario C would result in about 34,000 fewer acres of prime agricultural land converted to urban uses (120,000 acres versus 164,000 acres) by 2050 than the B+ plan, and a 20% reduction in household greenhouse gas emissions, compared with a 6% cut in B+.

Despite those recommendations, Scenario C found little support among the county supervisors, mayors and city councilmembers on the Policy Committee. The chosen B+ scenario actually calls for densities ranging from 4.7 units an acre in Madera County to at least 8 units per acre in Merced and Fresno counties. Unlike blueprints in California's four large metropolitan regions, the valley blueprint overall does not place heavy emphasis on high-intensity infill and transit-oriented development.

Rubio said Scenario C was a top-down imposition from interests outside of the valley, while Scenario B+ was the result of a grass roots process with thousands of participants. Scenario B+ still moves the valley toward higher densities and more compact communities, and nothing precludes the Policy Council or localities from raising densities further, he said.

"This is a very large ship we're attempting to turn here," Rubio emphasized.

Dr. Edward Moreno, Fresno County public health director and an advocate for healthier and more walkable communities, seemed to agree.

"Densities for a sustainable community are different than densities of housing projects that people think about," Moreno said. "It has taken us generations to get where we are at now. It will take a while for us to take a new direction."

Others, however, lamented a lost opportunity. Stockton Mayor Ann Johnston, who cast one of three Policy Council votes against Scenario B+, said, "We should be leaders, we should set the stage in California and not be followers."

Great Valley Center President David Hosley said that politics grew heated in the period before the Policy Council vote.

"Being more aggressive about growth management is outside the comfort zone of a lot of elected officials," Hosley said.

Hosley noted that the blueprint document was the result of varying levels of participation by the COGs. The Merced County Association of Governments, which coordinated the whole effort at first, was very involved and adopted a countywide blueprint calling for 8.6 units per acre. The San Joaquin COG and officials in that county, meanwhile, demonstrated far less interest in the regional project, he said.

"I have been interested to note the high level of distrust of Sacramento by the elected officials and in some cases by the professional planning staffs of the counties and cities," Hosley said. That distrust made it difficult to settle on a common approach throughout the region, he said.

The effort to take the blueprint to 70 localities may rely heavily on the work of a group of planning directors headed by John Wright, retired Clovis community development director. Exactly how much work each city and county will have to do is unclear, but Rubio said state policies such as SB 375 may have a greater influence than the blueprint itself on local land use decisions.

The valley blueprint project began two years before passage of SB 375, which calls for sustainable planning on a regional level in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Some people began to see the valley blueprint as a tool for meeting SB 375's coming mandates. But Barbara Steck, assistant director of the Council of Fresno County Governments, which is now serving a lead role, noted that no one knows what the SB 375 targets for greenhouse gas reductions will be. Hence, it is not possible to know if the blueprint will get the valley all the way to SB 375 compliance, or only one small step of the way.

Rubio contended the blueprint puts the valley "ahead of the curve," while Hosley was less certain.

"I can't help but feel the process could have been a little stronger," Hosley said. "The opportunity was there to do something to meet the greenhouse gas measures that are coming down."

Kern County Supervisor Michael Rubio, San Joaquin Valley Policy Council, (661) 868-3690.
Barbara Steck, Council of Fresno County Governments, (559) 233-4148.
David Hosley, Great Valley Center, (209) 522-5103.
Dr. Edward Moreno, Fresno County Department of Public Health, (559) 445-3204.
San Joaquin Valley Blueprint: www.valleyblueprint.org.