Monterey County's electronic community planning model proves we can't have it all.
Thursday, March 22, 2001
Imagine a world where expansive tracts of scenic and productive farmland are permanently protected from the bulldozer, and where rivers and wildlife habitat are safe from degradation at the hands of humans. In this same world, visualize working people walking, biking, or riding the bus short distances to their high-paying jobs. Fancy that hardworking, middle-class families can afford to purchase their own homes. In this imaginary world, a high quality of human life co-exists with clean air, abundant wildlife, healthy watersheds and wide open spaces.
Now wake up and smell the coffee.
As Monterey County moves forward with updating its general plan, which will guide development for the next 20 years, a new computer tool called iPLAN will enable community members to learn firsthand what county planners already know: We can''t have it all. Trade-offs are an inescapable part of land-use planning. If you don''t want any ag land paved over, affordable housing will suffer. If economic development is the top priority, expect more traffic and lower air quality.
By March 23, Monterey County residents will be able to access iPLAN via the Internet and see the consequences of planning decisions on their own computers. The program asks users to prioritize planning issues--such as water, protection of ag lands, transportation, and affordable housing--by choosing low, medium or high levels of investment for each category, either countywide or by specific planning areas. The program also allows armchair planners to predict future growth, ranging from a conservative natural population increase estimate of 33,000 more homes over the next 20 years--which assumes that only our offspring will choose to live here in the future--to the state of California mandate for 58,000 new homes.
People can then email their choices to the county''s consultant in Vancouver, BC, who uses the selected priorities to configure a custom-made electronic map depicting future growth patterns in Monterey County. Finally, the program gives the future world "satisfaction" scores measuring quality of life in terms of environmental, social and economic well-being. The maps and scores are then posted on the county''s Web site for you and others to view.
The tool is the brainchild of county Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Jim Colangelo, who says the custom-made program is the only one of its kind. Colangelo commissioned the computer program to be developed after talking with community members about growth.
"People were able to articulate what they wanted, such as protection of ag land," he says. "But when they were asked where future growth should go, they became paralyzed."
After the community has weighed in from home, results from the iPLAN will be compiled and used to analyze the community''s desires in developing the general plan. But because quality of life issues are difficult to quantify, Colangelo says iPLAN is more useful as a tool to teach community members about the concept of trade-offs. "I can''t say it''s as good an analytical tool yet as it is an educational tool to have the public understand how complex land-use issues are," he says.
iPLAN in Action
In a recent test drive of iPLAN, a dreamy Weekly reporter set out to create the perfect society. I wanted well-paying jobs for local residents, lots of open space, and a nice home with a big backyard for everyone. Using a middle-ground estimate of 47,000 new homes over 20 years, I gave water, ag preservation, economic development and affordable housing high levels of investment. I chose medium investment levels for services/infrastructure, habitat protection, transportation and zoning compactness. It was a utopia in the making, thought I.
After a few moments, county Senior Administrative Analyst Jared Ikeda''s computer spit out a map of my fantasy land. The future I envisioned sent Salinas spreading in all directions, particularly to the north. The foothills along Highway 68 and North County sprouted new houses, and development cropped up on farmlands hugging the Highway 101 corridor between Salinas and King City. A concentration of new growth even appeared in the tiny, isolated community of Bradley, deep in South County.
Even with a high priority for ag land protection, my perfect world looked pretty sprawled. But with the county estimating that there''s only room for 17,000 new homes in already-developed urban areas--and that number is admittedly optimistic because it fails to take resource constraints or zoning restriction into account--my new homes had to go somewhere.
Now for the satisfaction scores. On a scale of one to three--three being the best--my world ranked a two for economic vigor, but the environmental and social marks both hovered around the one-and-a-half point. So much for utopia.
Yet in comparison to the status quo, my world looked pretty good. A model of the future if we continue to develop like we have in the past looks like Sprawl City, with development skipping over urban areas and blanketing ag land from Salinas into South County, covering Carmel Valley and North County, and turning Highway 68 into a row of tract housing. Meanwhile, the high protection model, which gives the highest priority to wildlife habitat and ag land preservation, saw limited growth in agricultural lands but scored low on the social satisfaction scale.
None of these models depicted the perfect world, but they did offer a lesson. In the real world, the best hope for Monterey County''s future probably lies somewhere in the middle, in a space where environmental protection, farmland preservation, and the needs of residents are carefully balanced.
The iPLAN program is scheduled to be posted on Monterey County''s Web site by March 30, where it will remain for two months. Check it out at www.co.monterey.ca.us.