From Wood Colony to Urban Sprawl: A Planning Manual

Available: 100,000 square feet, Finch Road Modesto
Available: 100,000 square feet, Finch Road Modesto

Converting Wood Colony from prime farm land to urban sprawl begins with the land speculator. The speculator buys land near a growing city because it is inexpensive relative to the cost of property within that city.

Long term speculators buy land outside of a city’s “sphere of influence.” The speculator buys as much land as he can and then starts to agitate for the land to be included in the sphere of influence of the nearby city. That is how the Beckwith Triangle within Wood Colony was added to Modesto’s Sphere of Influence years ago. That is why almost the entire Wood Colony is being added to the map now.

Sphere of Influence

A city’s sphere of influence is land outside a city limit that the city lays claim to for future development. When the City of Modesto announced that Wood Colony would be included in its general plan, the city was announcing that the area was to be put into an expanded sphere of influence that will eventually be developed into part of an urban entity.

Land within a city’s sphere of influence cannot be developed until either it is annexed to the city or Stanislaus County decides to allow development. Because of the need to hook up to sewers, the County does not usually allow large developments outside of a city.

Urban Developments Outside of Cities

A large developer who wants to build his own sewer system could create an entirely new city using farm land. In San Joaquin County, Mountain House is an example of such a development. Lathrop sprawled in a similar manner. Carnegie was proposed near the intersection of Highways 132 and Interstate 5, but failed because the developer wasn’t wealthy enough to put it together.

Beard Industrial Park on the south side of Modesto is an example of an exception in the order of development because the City of Modesto allowed sewer hook up to its system while the County allowed the development.

For an industrial park to be built in Wood Colony, an agreement similar to Beard could be crafted, but Modesto might not agree because the City Council would want the property tax revenue.

The Incentive to Build Inside City Limits

Creating an entirely new city outside of an existing city is not popular among urban developers because they have found they can make a lot more money by having the citizens of a city subsidize the cost of infrastructure within their projects. Only developers with deep pockets or great political influence can afford to build outside cities. Modesto has a history of sacrificing services to its citizens in favor of subsidizing infrastructure costs for developers.

After Wood Colony Is Added to the Map

Once Wood Colony is added to the Sphere of Influence on the general plan map of Modesto, other land speculators will move in like vultures. Whenever a piece of land is for sale, they will buy it with no intention of farming. Once speculators own the land, they will join the earlier speculators in asking the city to annex their properties into the city.

Creating County Islands

The 26 county pockets within the City of Modesto were created when land speculators bought farm land around pockets of landowners who wanted to continue to farm or who did not want to annex to the city.

A similar process could play out in Wood Colony where every time a group of landowners wants to annex to the city, the annexation is granted. The area could end up as a checkerboard of poorly planned development similar to some parts of  Modesto.

Wood Colony will not cease to exist immediately. The community will die a slow death as each land buying speculator acquires each property offered for sale. Over time, as values rise or the community runs down, the temptation to sell will rise, accelerating land sales to developers and urbanization.

LAFCO Will Not Protect You

The Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) was created by the California state legislature to promote sound land use planning. The agency regulates annexations and has the ability to control urban sprawl. In Stanislaus County, LAFCO has been a rubber stamp for annexations. The majority of its politically appointed members usually favors urban interests over farming interests.  Wood Colony residents cannot count on LAFCO to defend them from annexations.

The Difference Between Land Speculator and Developer

A land speculator usually buys land for appreciation. Some speculators buy and hold long term. Some speculators buy and flip for quick profit. Except for those with deep pockets, speculators usually are not developers.

Most developers want land that can be developed immediately because their business is to develop, not to hold land. Developers do not want their capital tied up in land. They make their money from acquiring land, building quickly, and then selling the finished product.

The Modesto Chamber of Commerce is dominated by land speculators and developers. By taking Wood Colony, they are working as a team to make money for those in the two different types of businesses that create urban sprawl.

Wood Colony is presently in the “land speculator” phase of urban development. Once enough speculators get a foothold in the area, they will petition the city of Modesto for annexation. Once annexation is approved, developers will move in and start building.

If Wood Colony citizens do not make a stand now and get Modesto to take them off the general plan map, they are in grave danger of losing their heritage. They would be unwise to believe in the false promises they will receive from the politicians who come and go from office like a revolving door.


Eric Caine
Eric Caine
Eric Caine formerly taught in the Humanities Department at Merced College. He was an original Community Columnist at the Modesto Bee, and wrote for The Bee for over twelve years.
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  1. Hi Bruce,

    Great piece,

    1) I would add what Modesto is currently doing has nothing to do with amending its sphere of influence. Currently th City is just amending its General Map. The City can amend its general plan map or create a whole new map (nmajor revision) neither of which requires outside approval. Any sphere of influence change requires LAFCO approvel and a sphere of influence change may not occur for years after a general map changes occurs. In fact, the city can request a sphere of influence change at the time a specific development proposal is brought forward.

    2) My defintion if land speculator includes attorneys and other real estate types who are sometimes called developers in the media. They don’t actuallly build anything. They purchase the land, then navigate the through the government entitlement process including getting the properties annexed, then finally split and sell the land to actual developers. They are essentially middle men paper pushers.

  2. Also, Measure E would affect residential projects on residential developmets proposed on County lands. It does not though affect in any away a city’s plan to annex county land for residential development. Judging by some recent comments, there are some people who appear to mistakenly believe that it does.

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