Last Wednesday’s meeting of the Modesto Economic Development Committee highlighted a twenty-five year schism among Modesto leaders that is as much an effect of separate realities as it is of anything else.
On the one hand we have those who think we are losing prime farmland at far too great a rate. They believe we must establish firm urban boundaries now or too soon suffer the fates of Los Angeles and San Jose, both of which were once productive agricultural regions.
The other view holds that farmland preservation advocates are alarmists. Advocates of this view cite almost yearly reports of record-setting farm profits. They note a net increase in acres of irrigated farmland over the last decade. They also point out that Modesto is among the most densely populated cities in the San Joaquin Valley, a sure sign of wise planning.
Both sides are correct—up to point. While Modesto is indeed one of the most densely populated cities in the San Joaquin Valley, it’s also true that according to a recent study by the American Farmland Trust, Stanislaus County led the state in percentage of high quality farmland that was urbanized over the last few years.
As for those who claim a net increase in irrigated farmland, they too are correct. However, almost all that increase has come in the form of low quality land dependent on groundwater. The failure to distinguish between high quality farmland and lesser soils is by now simply disingenuous. There’s plenty of research highlighting the differences.
The best soil, the kind that surrounds Modesto and most every other city in Stanislaus County, can produce over three-hundred different kinds of crops. The best soil allows easy infiltration of water and recharges the aquifer. The best soil produces crops at far less expense than lesser soils.
Lesser soils require more ripping and tilling. They require more fertilizer and more pesticides. They produce far fewer crops—often fewer than a dozen different kinds. Because they are so often dependent on groundwater and so inefficient at infiltration of water, lesser soils tend to deplete the aquifer while concentrating salts and other harmful substances associated with fertilizer and pest control. In short, farming lesser soils is not sustainable.
A major topic at last Wednesday’s meeting was Denny Jackman’s proposal to put a Residential Urban Limits plan on the November ballot. The common refrain from Committee members Stephanie Burnside and Dave Cogdil Jr. was dislike for “planning by ballot box.” Both Burnside and Cogdill were careful to emphasize their awareness of the need to protect farmland.
Nonetheless, it was abundantly clear neither Burnside nor Cogdill wanted an urban limits proposal before the people, even though Jackman’s plan allows both commercial/industrial development and agriculture on the protected land.
Some of the usual players during our decades-long land use game spoke at the meeting. All said we need to preserve farm land and also need “shovel ready” land for business and industrial use. Except in passing, no one mentioned housing.
Nonetheless, the specter of housing hung over the meeting. Though he didn’t speak, Modesto City Council candidate Bill Zoslocki was in the audience. During his recent campaign for mayor, Zoslocki made no secret of his opposition to urban limits of any kind. Zoslocki has already been endorsed by many of the major players in Modesto’s long game of land use cat and mouse, including land use attorney George Petrulakis, who spoke at the meeting.
Petrulakis praised Jackman’s plan, calling it “thoughtful” and “nuanced.” He then lamented our long history of failure to come up with a satisfactory solution to our economic ills, saying dependence on only housing and agriculture was a recipe for economic disaster. He emphasized the need for everyone involved to “give a little.”
All of it sounded very appealing as long as one was willing to forget Zoslocki is a home builder and was one of the major architects of Village I. One also needed to forget Petrulakis’s long association with realtor Mike Zagaris. And most especially, one needed to forget Councilman Joe Muratore’s recent statement that commercial and industrial moves into Modesto were unlikely, “at least during this cycle.”
The plain truth is that Jackman’s plan addresses all the needs both sides in our long land use controversy have continuously cited as pressing issues. Given that Jackman’s proposal puts limits only on residential expansion, why the fear of putting it before the people? In fact, given the protection of opportunities to develop commercial and industrial sites as needed, why won’t the City Council simply implement it with changes based on member input?
Putting houses on prime farmland has been shown again and again to result in economic disaster. Yet again and again, local politicians resist residential limits, even while citing the need for commercial and industrial business in our region.
Our long history of inaction on planning is in large part the result of Modesto citizens’ willingness to ignore history and base their beliefs on wishful thinking. A scarred veteran of decades of “death by committee,” Denny Jackman is ready to put his proposal before the people in the form of an initiative. The Modesto City Council would do us all a big favor if it beat Jackman to the punch and implemented his or a slightly amended plan. In so doing, Councilmembers would look a lot less like typical Valley politicians and a lot more like the leaders our region so desperately needs.