New smart growth plan draws praise from most, but skeptics remain

With the release of a new transportation plan last week, the Stockton region is now poised to move to a more infill-focused and less highway-dependent growth pattern, but not without opposition.

Last Thursday, the San Joaquin Council of Governments (SJCOG) released for public comment the long-awaited draft Regional Transportation Plan (RTP)/Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS) which will guide development in the region for years to come. The result is an emphasis on the urban core and active transportation, such as biking, walking, and public transit with fewer tax dollars spent on new roads for new subdivisions on farmland. However, some board members that had previously expressed support for the plan voiced skepticism, leaving the plan’s future and its emphasis on smart growth in limbo.

SJCOG has released it's final draft of the RTP/SCS for public comment. Residents may view the plan and provide feeback at SJCOG.org

SJCOG has released it’s final draft of the RTP/SCS for public comment. Residents may view the plan and provide feeback at SJCOG.org

In January, the SJCOG Board overwhelmingly voted to proceed with a hybrid RTP/SCS developed using months of information gathered from various community organizations and stakeholders on how they felt the region should grow and what transportation modes should be prioritized. SJCOG staff settled on something they called “Scenario C+”, which refers to a series of four growth scenarios the council used to gage public reaction. The plan pulls mostly from Scenario C—SJCOG’s second most smart-growth focused plan scenario—while also incorporating some elements of the more progressive Scenario D particular to Stockton’s Climate Action Plan and Attorney General Settlement Agreement. The result is a plan that would focus funding on more bike lanes and public transportation while pulling back on building new roads.

But despite the board’s approval of this plan in November, some SJCOG Board members seemed to backtrack in their support for “Scenario C+” during Thursday’s public meeting.  Moreover, none of those vocally dissenting Board Members were Stockton representatives.

Chuck Winn, the City of Ripon’s Vice Mayor, was one of the more vocal critics of the plan.

“I’m troubled that we’re making decisions based on computer models,” said Winn. As an analogy, he pointed to the federal Climate Prediction Center failure to predict this year’s bitter cold brought by the polar vortex in the Midwest and East Coast, whereas the Old Farmers’ Almanac accurately predicted a very cold winter for two-thirds of the country, according to Winn. He used this comparison to argue that, like the Old Farmers’ Almanac, SJCOG “Board Members have a better feel for what’s going on in our communities and what our constituents want,” more so than “computer models that could change or have future variations.”

SJCOG staff addressed Winn’s comments by explaining that the RTP/SCS was developed using information and data from many sources, including recent household and job growth statistics, input from land-use and public works experts, market demand and economic studies, as well as many other existing plans that have been prepared by local jurisdictions and SJCOG.  The SJCOG staff also explained that comprehensive plans like the RTP/SCS are not created by planners alone in a room with a computer hypothesizing about what could happen, as the development of the plan required comprehensive data gathering and public outreach to form a complete picture in the most accurate way possible.  It should be noted that the SJCOG staff spent several months conducting outreach to city planning departments, community organizations and holding public information sessions both in person and through internet surveys.

Another Board Member, City of Tracy Mayor Brent Ives, also took issue with certain aspects of the plan.

This figure shows the change in transportation funding under the draft RTP/SCS (click for higher resolution)

This figure shows the change in transportation funding under the draft RTP/SCS (click for higher resolution)

“This plan and its specifics puts future SJCOG boards on a slippery slope,” said Ives. Specifically, Ives expressed concern over Plan Figures 2.3 and 2.4, two donut charts displaying an 11.5% decrease in new road construction projects from the prior RTP/SCS. In the new RTP/SCS, these funds are shifted into transit, active transportation and maintenance of existing roads.  Ives questioned whether this was the first time he was seeing these numbers, implying that he would not have supported this scenario if he had been aware of such a funding shift.  SJCOG Deputy Director Diane Nguyen explained that this was the third time the Board had seen these numbers specific to Scenario C, but it was the first time they were presented in donut form.

Ives also questioned staff on potential consequences if the Board were to step back from the plan in its current form.  Nguyen explained that there are eight valley COGs going through the RTP/SCS process together, and if one were to miss the air quality standards required by the state’s smart growth law SB 375, or fail to submit their plan by the September 2014 deadline, all eight COGs would fail.  Failure would put future federal funding for transportation projects at risk.

There was also discussion among the Board and staff whether the RTP/SCS could dictate local General Plan policies and related implementation. Staff ensured the Board that the RTP/SCS is intended to provide a foundation that local governments can build upon if they so choose.  Local jurisdictions may wish to further their sustainability efforts through approval of new development consistent with the plan’s growth strategies, or they may wish to forgo those goals through General Plan implementation.

While some board members appeared apprehensive about the plan, most public comments signaled strong support. Will Barrett of the American Lung Association praised the RTP/SCS as “healthier” and appreciated the “focus on active transportation.”

Carey Knecht, Associate Director with ClimatePlan, a network of organizations dedicated to sustainable land use planning in California, pointed out that demographics in the Central Valley and the state are changing.  She argued that young professionals need and want to live in livable urban areas, and the RTP/SCS supported this type of development.

Katelyn Roedner of Catholic Charities supported the plan as well, stating that “20% of kids in San Joaquin County have asthma” and argued more must be done to address poor air quality in the valley by minimizing our dependence on driving automobiles.

However, not all public comment was in praise of the plan. John Beckman of the Building Industry Association cited a study saying that 80% of people want to live in large, detached homes. He urged the Board to go with the less compact Scenario B,  and echoed many of the concerns brought up earlier by Board members.

“If the plan fails, it’s not a big deal,” said Beckman. “So what if we get sued for noncompliance?”

Beckman called the more compact development patterns required by the plan, “pie in the sky fantasy land” and “not achievable,” while also threatening that should the plan move forward in its current form, “projects in your cities will get sued.”

This graphic depicts the process SJCOG staff took to develop the draft RTP/SCS, which included months of information gathering and collaboration with community groups and residents

This graphic depicts the process SJCOG staff took to develop the draft RTP/SCS, which included months of information gathering and collaboration with community groups and residents

Randy Hatch, retired Community Development Director of the cities of Lodi, Ceres and Clayton and former City of Stockton Planning Commissioner, was pleased that the Plan “provides options and doesn’t force one type of housing over another.”  He reminded the Board that they are not land use planners, and ultimately what happens with land use rests with each local jurisdiction.  In a rebuttal to Beckman’s statement about consumer preference for large, detached homes, Hatch contended that “preference surveys are all well and good if you can afford a big single family home, but most of our citizens cannot. This plan offers options and choices for those people.”

With the draft Plan now on the street, the public has until April 23, 2014 to provide input. During that time, SJCOG staff will continue their community outreach to ensure they have the most comprehensive plan possible.  SJCOG will hold a series of workshops in March and April to spread the word about what the Plan means for us in the valley, and what the public can do to provide feedback. You can access the draft RTP/SCS and provide feedback at www.sjcog.org

 

 

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Categories: Development News, Smart Growth, Transportation

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