Coming To A Neighborhood Near You...sprawl!
Monterey County's prime farmland is threatened by growth. Can anything be done to contain it?
Thursday, June 10, 1999
The school''s morning bell is minutes from ringing. Tense parents and commuters are lined up on Schulte Road in mid-Carmel Valley--just one of many valley roads--and wait, impatiently, for an opening in the fast current of Carmel Valley Road''s traffic. SUVs, cars and trucks--nearly bumper to bumper--push dangerously close to one another in their migration to morning destinations.
Just a few years ago there was no wait at all. But today, the pattern of near gridlock is repeated throughout Monterey County, on access points along Highway 68, Blanco Road, and Highway 1.
But, until last week, the county''s crowded highways and byways seemed to have escaped the notice of the Board of Supervisors.
As if awakening from a stupor last week, with a surprising display of solidarity, the county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to take the first step toward imposing a moratorium on new subdivisions in Carmel Valley. You could almost hear the cries of rejoicing echo from one end of Carmel Valley to the other. Finally, sanity in the corridors of county government. Finally, some order in the chaos.
With the demise of the Hatton Canyon Freeway, and state-imposed water cutbacks from the Carmel River threatening Peninsula homeowners with water rationing, the supervisors acted as if development in Carmel Valley, at least for the present, has reached maximum capacity.
Although the supervisors'' decision was limited to Carmel Valley, it points out what has become a growing concern throughout the county: Quite simply, Monterey County''s natural resources and infrastructure are being stretched to the breaking point. Prime farmland is being paved over for shopping centers, ranches are being converted into housing developments, available water supplies are being overdrafted, and meanwhile, more and more people are coming here to live.
With a growth rate that is the third highest in the state, Monterey County is expected to grow from a current population of approximately 391,300, to a projected figure of 537,000 by 2020, a 37 percent increase.
Add to this already approved and unconstructed projects that will plant some staggering numbers in the landscape: 8,167 dwelling units, almost 5 million-square-feet of commercial/industrial development, and 701 hotel and motel rooms. And that''s only if no new projects are approved by either the county or cities.
When you add pending projects to those figures, the totals jump to 15,410 dwelling units, 8.6 million-square-feet of commercial/industrial development, and 1,418 hotel/motel units. And even those figures do not include full build-out on Fort Ord or the 6,800 CSUMB students expected in the next decade, nor any build-out of city or county general plans, which include such potential projects as the 2,500-home project at Armstrong Ranch, north of Marina.
Plan Your Work, Work Your Plan
These numbers were revealed in LandWatch Monterey County''s second annual report, "State of Monterey County 1999" released Tuesday. It presents a rather disturbing testament to land use planning gone awry. LandWatch is a one and a half year old nonprofit land use watchdog group whose motto is "Smart Growth."
"I think the message is clear," says LandWatch Executive Director Gary Patton. "The main point made in our first report is significantly reinforced this year, that Monterey County has already made commitments that will lead to significant visible changes in the quality of life here, which heightens the need to make sure we have the best planning policies."
What stands out most forcefully in the report, beyond the county''s failure to assure that infrastructure was in place or fully funded before projects were approved, is the county''s failure to implement comprehensive planning policies that would support and encourage new growth within existing cities'' boundaries and spheres of influence. By using land annexation as its primary development tool, elected officials have placed in jeopardy the agricultural and open space legacy that is the hallmark of Monterey County.
Just in case anyone needed a reminder, "State of Monterey County 1999" makes it fully clear that the land use practices, policies and procedures of the past are leading the county down a road that will forever alter the landscape and social structure of the county. The LandWatch report is based on a comprehensive, coordinated survey of county and city reporting on such topics as housing and commercial development, water availability and road capacity, and overall land use practices in Monterey County. It paints a sobering picture of a county charging ahead with development project approvals despite an insufficient infrastructure to meet those projects'' needs, or a sense of what impact those projects may have on the county''s future.
"Monterey County needs to recast and revisit planning policies, and my sense is either elected representatives will find ways to accommodate public concerns through normal governmental channels, or we''ll have increasing use of the only tools people have available, direct methods of the initiative and referendum at the ballot box," says Patton.
For as startling as these development projections are, the real story behind the numbers is the threat these new projects pose to ag land and open space preservation.
As outlined in the LandWatch report, "urban land expansion" resulting from population growth is occurring at the rate of 159 acres per 1,000 new residents. By comparison, Santa Cruz County converts only 40 acres per 1,000 residents, San Luis Obispo County 60 acres per 1,000, and San Benito County 109 acres per 1,000.
If this trend continues through 2020, urban land in Monterey County will consume an additional 23,800 acres. Between 1984 and 1998 alone, 3,348 acres of agricultural land--including 2,300 acres of prime ag land--were converted to urban land use.
At risk for future conversion are 2,250 acres of ag land, including 1,650 of prime ag land located within the spheres of influence of the five Salinas Valley cities. This would drive the acres of urban land from a 1996 figure of approximately 50,000 to a total of 70,000 by 2020.
"We''re being very inefficient in terms of the expansion of urban lands for each new increment of growth," says Patton. "We''re the second least efficient county in the state of the ones we surveyed. When you think of the final shape of the community, you have to ask, ''are we being efficient as we spend resources?'' You don''t recapture land once it''s used. We need to make certain we don''t use more land per person, that we use less."
For LandWatch Assistant Director Donna Kaufman, these figures indicate a massive failure on the part of county and city officials to coordinate planning efforts, particularly regarding infrastructure.
"The limitations in funding and level of service should be recognized, and land use policy should address the lack of ability to expand capacity," says Kaufman, who believes that public facilities should be in place or built concurrently with new development.
"From my own perspective particularly in the area of housing, there isn''t an integration in the overall planning that puts the cities and county together," adds Kaufman. "No organization looks at development on a regional basis, and one of the themes of local government throughout California is that city governmental entities are not able to deal with regional problems well."
Subdivide and Conquer MontereyCounty is not the first to see its farmlands converted to urban uses, nor its infrastructure congested by a growing population. Twenty-six years ago, the state legislature of Oregon, fearful of farmland loss, adopted a land use law that called for the establishment of Urban Growth Boundaries (UGBs) to define its growth area. A UGB is in essence a line drawn around a region with the intent of delineating the areas of urban expansion over a specified time frame. UGBs favor urban infill over sprawl, and direct future growth and development to within cities'' existing spheres of influence.
Other communities have implemented aggressive growth planning strategies in an attempt to better control growth. In 1967, Boulder, Colo. residents approved a tax for the purpose of acquiring land to ring developable area by non-developable open space. The state of Hawaii took yet another approach by subdividing all land into four use types: Urban, Rural, Agricultural and Conservation.
In California, the first voter-approved UGBs were adopted in 1996 by the Sonoma County communities of Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, and Healdsburg and the Alameda County community of Pleasanton. More recently, voters approved UGBs in Novato, Windsor, Milpitas, Cotati and Petaluma. Other communities (San Jose, Cupertino, Morgan Hill, Monte Sereno, Los Gatos, Napa, Palo Alto, Santa Barbara and Modesto) have adopted UGBs through city council action.
If the members of LandWatch have their way, Monterey County may soon join that list.
Proponents of UGBs argue that such a planning tool has been an effective remedy, especially in Oregon, in reducing urban sprawl, reducing the public costs of infrastructure, providing for a better integration of affordable housing in mixed neighborhoods, promoting more efficient use of resources, and reducing the conflicts between urban and ag users.
"UGBs have been successful in the sense that there aren''t subdivisions, shopping malls and outlet centers sprawled across Oregon," says Mary Kyle McCurdy, UGB specialist with 1000 Friends of Oregon, a land use watchdog group that has championed UGBs.
According to McCurdy, what successes there have been with UGBs in Oregon are due to the efforts to make UGBs a statewide planning tool.
"It makes it easier because it''s statewide," notes McCurdy. "The ground rules are the same and the playing is field level. UGBs have decreased the cost of urban services."
On the downside, a growing chorus of critics charge that while UGBs may have helped preserve ag land and open space, they have also resulted in higher land and housing costs, placed burdens on schools, have disrupted the character of older neighborhoods through radical zoning changes, generated urban traffic congestion and created additional financial burdens on cities.
"UGBs are a simplistic view of a very complex problem of how you manage growth," says North Bay Association of Realtors Government Affairs Director Kathy Hayes, who has analyzed some of the impacts of UGBs in Sonoma and Napa counties and finds them to be a significant contributing factor to higher home costs.
"In Sonoma County, between last year and this year, the median home cost has gone up 21 percent," says Hayes. "Understanding that statewide there is definite housing demand, nevertheless what a UGB ends up doing is increasing the cost of vacant land inside the boundary and make buildings inside the line more valuable.
To date, no city in Monterey County has any planning policies in place that incorporate any kind of boundary to development. Although the major Salinas Valley cities have endorsed the principle of "city-centered" growth, LandWatch''s Kaufman says that principle is built more upon annexation of land to within the cities'' spheres of influence than it is directed to actual infill development.
With LandWatch data indicating that 75 percent of new growth is expected in the cities versus 25 percent in the county''s unincorporated areas, LandWatch argues that UGBs are critical to preventing wholesale annexation of ag land into cities'' spheres of influence.
"What we are trying to work toward is the idea of setting a boundary limit with permanent protections outside the limit," says Patton.
"There is a burden of proof to show [UGBs are] necessary," adds Patton. "I''m hopeful there is a mechanism and that city and county cooperation will in the next couple of years refocus on a better set of [land use] principles."
With Monterey County and numerous area cities preparing to update their general and local land use plans, many of which are 10 to 20 years old, LandWatch is advocating a comprehensive and cooperative approach to updating those city and county general plans, with a particular emphasis on the implementation of UGBs to shift growth away from open space and ag land and direct it to existing or reconfigured city boundaries.
Sheryl McKenzie, longtime government affairs director of the Monterey County Association of Realtors, believes the UGB concept is problematic at best, and if it is to work, it will require a radical restructuring of social policy.
"A lot of what I''ve been reading with people who promote UGBs is that this is an environmental issue," says McKenzie. "Certainly promoting growth and infill in the urban core does preserve ag land and open space, but I also see it as a social issue. You''re eliminating choices for individuals if what you''re doing is building within this urban core. There is higher density and with higher density comes smaller homes, maybe less private open space, school and crime issues. You also have to consider when looking at development in the urban core that when there is less choice outside the core, prices have to go up. Who ends up being displaced but low-income people and minorities?
"The best thing we can do is look at how it has worked in other areas, being mindful that those areas may not have the same demographics and issues," adds McKenzie.
We need to look at the trade-offs and how it will affect people."
As far as Salinas Mayor Anna Caballero is concerned, the big question and even bigger challenge in implementing a UGB is how it will affect her city''s future planning goals, and whether the county and state would help Salinas, or any other city, in picking up the additional costs cities would face in meeting state and federally mandated "fair share" housing requirements, and providing infrastructure and city services for new residents.
"If the state changes the formula how cities get revenue and if the county''s willing to live under the same constraints, and if there was an opportunity to share in revenues across jurisdictional lines, the concept would work," says Caballero. "But to put the burden on urban dwellers and not have same the constraints on the county doesn''t make sense."
Caballero insists that UGBs can only work if they are analyzed and adopted on a countywide level. Caballero remains unconvinced that a UGB for Salinas, particularly if it''s drawn around Salinas'' existing city limits, will work.
"The way the system is set up now, the revenues cities see that go into the general fund to provide support services come from sales tax, TOT [transient occupancy tax] and property tax," explains Caballero. "If those continue to be major sources of revenue it becomes difficult for cities with a UGB to be able to plan for the future and predict and meet needs."
McCurdy acknowledges that UGBs have not solved all of Oregon''s development problems and remain works-in-progress. Ironically, says McCurdy, Oregon now finds itself confronted with having to redraw some of its original UGBs outward as growth in major cities has pushed toward the limits of existing UGBs.
"We didn''t pay enough attention to development patterns inside the UGBs as much as we should have," concedes McCurdy. "There are some areas in the UGB that look like sprawling America, but we are making an effort to use land more efficiently."
The complexity of implementing UGBs and the resistance it would likely face from the cities hasn''t been lost on District 5 Supervisor Dave Potter, who feels UGBs aren''t the only solution to preventing sprawl and preserving ag land.
"UGBs have worked in other areas and might be a good way to put definitions on what urban areas look like, but there other ways of doing that," says Potter.
"It may not sound like there''s a lot of work involved but it is a very labor intensive process. You can''t look at it singularly, at one urbanized area. You have to look at all areas and have conservation among all jurisdictions and municipalities."
Given the particular geographic constraints in the Salinas Valley and the fact that the existing Valley cities would likely have to annex additional ag land before "final" boundaries could be drawn, Potter says UGBs will be problematic when it comes time to draw the specific boundaries.
"There may be some loss of ag land, although there is the possibility to do development within the foothills versus the floor of the Valley," explains Potter, "but that doesn''t speak to the UGB issue and that is where the rub is. If you take the South County cities, they are surrounded by ag land, which is making the acknowledgment you would have to give up land. One of the questions to be asked is what is the priority on ag land."
Exactly where UGBs would be drawn is another critical issue as far as Potter is concerned.
"I would be interested to see if it would be a north/south or east/ west boundary," says Potter. "I would hate see the Highway 101 corridor look like 101 in the San Jose, Gilroy, Morgan Hill area with all that highway frontage development and one mega-mall holding hands with another. I don''t want the ag industry hidden away."
While Patton doesn''t profess that UGBs are necessarily the ultimate solution to Monterey County''s growth problems, and admits to the need for economic incentives to help preserve agriculture, he does feel UGBs warrant serious consideration, particularly within a comprehensive framework that incorporates both county and city planning models.
"There is no doubt any land use policy scheme has both strengths and weaknesses," admits Patton. "The question is deciding what is most important. UGBs do place growth in areas where land costs tend to be higher, and LandWatch is being fairly careful not to say a UGB has to be the existing city limits and that it doesn''t preclude acquiring additional ag land.
"The problem with any set of reform principals changing what already exists is there will always be discontinuities," adds Patton.
"A UGB doesn''t automatically lead to compensating changes that would be best, but what we do believe is if our community can put together a package of UGB patterns, the long-term costs are less and if we have problems of revenues, we''re confident over time we can get the state system to change as well."
Regardless of whether UGBs become the guiding planning principle for future growth and development in Monterey County, Patton insists that based on LandWatch''s assessment of current planning and development practices, the county must adopt some basic growth strategies within the limits of existing or guaranteed future infrastructure; and directed toward preventing urban sprawl.
"The report is not doom and gloom, but an opportunity for the right decisions to be made," says Patton. "We think all political jurisdictions and the public should regard the situation as an opportunity.
"It''s true we''re at a critical point, but we have an incredible opportunity for the public and elected officials and government organizations to do the kind of regional, cooperative planning principles that can make a fundamental difference in terms of the choices where we want growth to go. LandWatch is offering to participate and make that process work and I''m hopeful it will work." cw
Read the entire "State of Monterey County 1999," at LandWatch.