As Stockton shakes off the storm clouds of bankruptcy and looks to a brighter future, it’s fair to wonder if smart growth will be a forgotten priority. Though the City Council and city planners embraced the imperative for a more sustainable, less sprawl-filled future during the city’s time in bankruptcy, there seems to be little urgency now that we’re on the other side.
As usual for Stockton, crime prevention is at the top of most priority lists — the city’s violent crime rate is still too high, and Forbes Magazine ranked it the eighth most dangerous in the country as recently as 2012. And if crime is the hottest concern, economic development isn’t far behind, as the city, county and Central Valley continue to lag behind California in rebounding from the Great Recession.
Meanwhile, a revision of the 2007 general plan mandated by a 2009 legal settlement with the state attorney general’s office and Sierra Club remains unfinished. Stockton’s to-be-updated blueprint for growth is languishing somewhere in City Hall’s bureaucracy.
It’s true that the general plan — and its wonky concepts of infill, density and spheres of influence — is less than sexy. But it deserves to be front-and-center now that bankruptcy is over. The process of changing the general plan from sprawling, lawsuit-inviting monstrosity to sustainable map for growth is vital to creating a vibrant, healthy city that reflects the needs and desires of its residents. It should not be forgotten.
Local developers certainly haven’t stopped asserting their influence over the fate of Stockton’s future. On Nov. 25 of last year, David Nelson, senior vice president of A.G. Spanos Companies, sent a letter to the San Joaquin County Community Development Department — the county just happens to be updating its general plan at the same time as Stockton tinkers with its own plan.
The letter asked for Spanos-owned land north of Eight Mile Road that straddles Interstate 5 to be designated as “urban reserve,” rather than “agriculture.” According to the letter, the new designation is more in line with the long-term intended use of the land and is therefore a better representation of the county’s general plan to the public.
The distinction doesn’t mean much, immediately. For houses to spring from the land in question, Stockton would have to annex the area into city limits while giving the go-ahead for construction. But it shows at the very least that Spanos hasn’t forgotten that the future of local development hangs in the balance.
All local greenfield developers have a financial stake in ensuring that Stockton’s revised general plan resembles the old one as closely as possible. For this reason alone they will remain engaged — making it imperative that Stockton residents and their representatives on the City Council remain engaged as well. Developers deserve a seat at the table, but they don’t need to have the loudest voice. And we’ve already seen what a greenfield developer-driven focus can bring to our planning process.
In 2004, Stocktonians passed two different measures purporting to protect agricultural land from residential development. But one of the two was actually a Trojan horse put forward by development interests. While both initiatives were approved, the one drafted on behalf of developers won significantly more votes, and a clause in pro-developer law’s language torpedoed the more meaningful measure backed by local smart growth activists.
Despite that, the sentiment of the voters was clear: There should be limits on the city’s growth, and residents should direct what type of growth occurs and where. That was forgotten by the city leaders who engineered the 2007 general plan, in part because those with skin in the game had the most input regarding the rules, and most residents sat on the sidelines. It led to a document that would have continued a valley-wide plague of paving over productive agricultural land in favor of single-family houses — the same single-minded growth strategy that fostered the housing boom and bust that devastated Stockton.
Thanks to the Sierra Club and then-Attorney General Jerry Brown, Stockton was forced to take another look at its growth priorities. With bankruptcy in the rearview mirror, now is the perfect chance for city leadership, including members of the City Council, to take up the mantle and champion smarter growth. The alternative is a return to business as usual, and letting those with the loudest voices set policy for the rest of the city’s residents.