Over the past year, I have written at length about how Stockton should grow in the future and how smart growth policies can bring stability and vitality to our region. All the while, there has been a plan in the works that will greatly affect what our cities will look like for decades to come. Since last November, the San Joaquin Council of Governments (SJCOG) has been working diligently on a plan that will direct Stockton’s transportation growth until 2040, which in turn will shape the city’s growth and development patterns.
This is a very important process, and I haven’t had a chance to write about it indepth until now. So here is all you need to know about SJCOG’s Sustainable Communities Strategy, how it will affect growth in the Stockton region, and how you can participate in the discussion
What is the Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS)?
In a nutshell, there are 18 regions across California that are developing plans to curb greenhouse gas emissions by reprioritizing transportation patterns as part of SB 375—California’s landmark greenhouse gas emission reduction bill passed in 2008. In our area, the San Joaquin Council of Governments (SJCOG) is responsible for putting together a Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS) with the ultimate goal of reducing emissions by 5% by 2020 and 10% by 2035 (using 2005 emissions as a baseline). This is a lofty goal for our region in particular as the Central Valley population is predicted to grow by leaps and bounds during these time frames. As such, SJCOG’s plan will go a long way towards shaping how and where Stockton metro area cities grow.
The plan is still under development and plenty has to be accomplished before anything is finalized. But if all goes according to plan, SJCOG hopes to adopt a final plan by March of 2014. Until then, there will be many opportunities to weigh in on what we want our communities to look like for the next 27 years.
What the SCS means for the Stockton region
To be clear, what SJCOG is doing should not be considered a land use plan as they have no actual land use authority over any municipality or private property owner.
“To focus solely on the land use and growth aspect of this plan misses the point,” said Deputy Director Diane Nguyen. “This plan is done in concert with our transportation plans.”
Regional bodies such as SJCOG cannot force cities or private property owners to do anything. However, SB 375 does give SJCOG the authority to set eligibility standards for federal and state transportation funds, and as we know, certain types of growth have specific transportation needs. According to SB 375, if a transportation project is not aligned with the region’s SCS, then it won’t be eligible for funding.
For example, SJCOG’s SCS plan won’t stop a subdivision from going up on farmland, but the extra lanes and highway space needed to sustain that subdivision won’t be eligible for federal funds if it’s not a part of the SCS. Cities and developers are welcome to finance the transportation infrastructure themselves, but they just can’t use tax dollars to do so. In this respect, the final SCS will more than likely place a greater emphasis on transportation projects within existing cities, which would then encourage construction in downtown areas with easy access to various transportation options.
Aside from transportation funding eligibility, SB 375 also incentivizes specific types of development by offering CEQA shortcuts. Specifically, transit oriented and mixed-use projects qualify for CEQA streamlining if they align with the region’s SCS, even if they conflict with local plans. If these projects meet various standards, such as a minimum net density and proximity to public transit, they can qualify for either a full CEQA exemption or an expedited environmental assessment.
Last week, we finally got a glimpse of what the SJCOG SCS could look like. SJCOG released four “scenarios” (A through D) showing different levels of growth in our region as well as how these growth patterns would affect regional conditions such as air quality, transit ridership and traffic. Scenario A reflects traditional growth patterns (i.e. sprawl) while Scenario D emphasizes construction in existing city boundaries. Scenarios B and C fall somewhere in between. The mix of housing is very different from A to D. In scenario A, about 91% of new housing would be single family homes. By contrast, Scenario D splits new housing nearly in half, with 49% single family housing and the rest a mixture of apartments, townhomes and condos. Take a look (click on each image for higher resolution):
These maps are about a year in the making, with SJCOG working with planning departments in each city across the region, using general plans and previously authorized projects to determine where growth is most likely to occur. For instance, a big chunk of Stockton’s growth in all scenarios is concentrated in the northwest, reflecting projects that have already been approved by the city of Stockton (such as Grupe’s Sanctuary development).
The maps provide a nice visualization of where new growth may occur, but more importantly, they also represent varying health, transportation and environmental outcomes for our region depending on how we decide to grow. Using a model, SJCOG developed performance measures for each scenario and their impacts on the region, take a look at how they stack up, and vote on your favorite at the end of the article (click on each image for higher resolution):
As you can see, the performance measures show that Scenario D reduces travel, wastes less gas, paves over less farmland, and uses less energy than all other scenarios. In addition, Scenario D also includes the highest amount of public transit ridership.
As part of the SCS process, SJCOG has conducted outreach to the general public as well as various community organizations and business interest groups. So far, the public responses have been mixed, and even contradictory to a certain extent.
“We saw a strong preference for single family housing,” said Associate Regional Planner Aaron Hoyt, “but at the same time we also saw a preference for new construction within existing city limits.”
The desire to live in a big house but also support infill development seems inconsistent, but both Nguyen and Hoyt have theories as to why they are seeing these mixed responses. For one, many people may prefer large, private homes, and new construction on farmland may impede this privacy or devalue their property. For these individuals, it makes sense to support infill development because it will keep people away from them, preserving their privacy.
Another theory is that when instructed to select just one type of housing option, people will always pick the housing type they perceive as the most luxurious. Nguyen calls this the “American Dream” effect in that we all aspire to a life in a big home out in the country, even if we can’t afford it. In reality, however, those same people may also be just as happy to live in an apartment or condo (and probably happier when you consider walkability). To put it another way, if given the choice between a Honda, an Audi, and a Lamborghini—without any context— most people will probably choose the fancier sports car. If we had to actually purchase one of these cars, most would probably choose something more practical.
On the other hand, SJCOG is finding that a significant majority of participants have shown the desire for more bike lanes, trails and public transportation options over new roads.
“We saw a lot support for multi-modal transportation,” says Hoyt. “Support for bike lanes and trails was high, as was expanding existing public transit and investing in service to new areas. There was less interest in building new roads.”
SJCOG understands that while they are doing their best to reach as many people as possible, they may not be getting feedback that is representative of the region’s population. Most participants in public outreach surveys and meetings have been older and white, a demographic that is not representative of the community as a whole. To ensure a broader range of input, SJCOG has conducted extensive outreach to dozens of groups across all spectrums of interests such as the San Joaquin County Department of Public Health, Catholic Charities, the American Lung Association and the National Resource Defense Council.
“Interest groups are very vocal with their preference of scenarios,” says Nguyen. “As we go forward, we expect these groups will become even more vocal.”
While no groups have officially thrown their support to any of the four scenarios, Nguyen says that most organizations have indicated their support for the positive elements presented by Scenario D. Environmental groups like the reduction in driving and preservation of land while health groups like the idea of fewer traffic collisions and cleaner air.
In addition to community organizations, SJCOG also receives input from groups such as Visionary Home Builders, The Building and Industry Association of the Delta, and Campaign for Common Ground. Through all of these avenues, it’s tough to find a group or cause that hasn’t had a seat at the table during the SCS process.
While most groups appear to be leaning towards Scenario D, elected officials apparently are not as keen on smart growth. According to SJCOG, several elected officials—SJCOG did not specify from which municipalities—have expressed their support for Scenario B, which largely reflects traditional growth and transportation patterns (i.e. sprawl).
Hoyt notes that this process ultimately may not crown one of the four scenarios as the winner. A more likely outcome will be a hybrid of the scenarios customized to address the needs and concerns of each city. For example, Stocktonians may indicate their preference for more infill development while Manteca may prefer a more traditional, single family subdivision approach.
“We’re trying to tease out the parts of the scenarios that people like, then try to fine tune our approach based on these preferences,” said Hoyt. “We are taking a multi-tiered approach to ensure that we are as comprehensive as possible.”
This week, SJCOG is continuing with public hearings in each city. In November, a plan will be selected and there will be a 55 day public comment period at which point SJCOG will conduct its third round of public outreach. If all goes as planned, SJCOG will finalize the RTP/SCS in March of 2014.
In Stockton, the next public hearing is set for this Thursday, August 29th. Check the SJCOG website for dates and times in other areas. What do you think? Take SCL’s informal poll below on your SCS scenario preference