Because they are not subject to the Local Agency Formation Comission’s (LAFCO) authority, schools are among the most potent weapons in the sprawlers’ arsenal. No one knows this better than Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini, who acquired first-hand knowledge of school scams shortly after winning election in 2004.
“The Patterson School Board wanted to put a school out on Zacharias Road near the intersection of Baldwin Road,” said DeMartini recently. “Paul Caruso (DeMartini’s predecessor) had written a letter listing the reasons it was a bad site, and I supported Caruso completely on that issue.”
In his letter to the School District, Caruso noted the site was not in the city’s Sphere of Influence and would have a negative impact on agriculture. He added:
There is a potential economic loss in farm gate receipts of $1,500,000. The placement of a 56-acre high school site in this agricultural area will negatively impact an additional 1,115 acres of agricultural land, much of which is an Agricultural Preserve and in the Williamson Act.
He could also have mentioned that the site was so far north of town that, at the time, it was not even in the General Plan.
Ordinarily, such a ruling by a local supervisor and member of LAFCO would be conclusive. In this case, it was not.
“Not only was the site on ag land in the Williamson Act, it’s on a floodplain,” says DeMartini today. “When I first got into government I was really naïve. I thought people wanted good planning and would listen to reason. We brought in planners and experts who advised the site was terrible for a school. We were completely ignored.”
As he delved into the forces behind the ill-advised purchase, DeMartini learned that local landowners and Southern California developers were driving the acquisition. Empire Development, a company based in Ontario, had a detailed plan for the area featuring the high school, a hospital, and housing tracts.
“It was unbelievable,” says DeMartini. “The site was too far out of town for the kids to walk to school. It was clear the purchase was made to encourage development.”
The more he looked into the City of Patterson’s planning and the School District’s purchase, the more DeMartini realized the serious threat to the future of agriculture in Stanislaus County posed by promoters of sprawl.
“Sprawl doesn’t make economic sense,” says DeMartini, forgetting for a moment it makes a lot of economic sense to the developers and landowners who profit from inducing and exploiting growth.
And the profits can be enormous. Farmland that ordinarily might sell for ten or twelve thousand dollars an acre can be worth ten or even twenty times that amount when sold for housing. It’s often too tempting an equation to resist, especially in the absence of fixed city limits and hard urban boundaries.
Assuming you own sufficient nearby land, landing a school site for your property is thus worth tens of millions and more, even if the site is offered gratis. In addition to immunity from LAFCO authority, school sites enjoy elevated status in the battle for public approval. Critics of the locations of schools are easily caricatured as anti-education, even when the site itself is the only issue.
Even when faced with severe obstacles for development, the school scam offers a way over the barriers. In the early 1990’s, the proposed University of California Mapes Ranch site near Modesto was not only the winter home of an endangered species but also on a floodplain, factors which would ordinarily preclude even a faint hope of development. And while the Mapes Ranch location was ultimately rejected, UC ended up in Merced County, far off the freeway in a sparsely populated area surrounded by productive farmland, a sure blueprint for sprawl.
While not as highly publicized as UC locations, high school sites such as the one DeMartini opposed are a routine method of inducing growth that otherwise might never occur or would at least be located somewhere else. Once the remote site is established, it’s only “inevitable” that the space between the high school and distant city is filled with houses.
In the past, some counties have been far more vigorous than Stanislaus in using LAFCO authority to ensure smart growth. Over a decade ago, when the city of Oxnard attempted to extend water and sewer services to an elementary school site on farmland east of the city, Ventura County LAFCO filed a lawsuit.
“LAFCO wants to make sure its authorities are not being circumvented,” said Everett Millais, executive director of the state-mandated regulatory agency charged with reviewing all proposed city boundary changes.
LAFCO authority, like any, must be exercised to be effective. Jim DeMartini intends to give Stanislaus County LAFCO the teeth the agency has in counties that promote smart growth and protect farmland.
“Ventura and Napa Counties have hard growth boundaries,” he says, “and Yolo County does an excellent job of protecting farmland.”
The mayors of the cities of Stanislaus County, on the other hand, have long resisted urban limits, and have lagged in presenting growth plans featuring anything but limitless parameters. And Patterson’s Zacharias Road school site isn’t Stanislaus County’s only instance of the sprawlers’ beloved school scam.
Gregori High School, north of Modesto, is a prime example of powerful landowners working together with developers, politicians and school board members to establish a school site on a bad location. Gregori was built on a peach orchard, over polluted soil. It has proven more far more expensive than the architecturally identical Enochs School, in part because the country roads serving Gregori were inadequate to handle the increased traffic the school attracted.
“We almost begged them to choose another site. The site never made sense, and we kept bringing that up,” said John DeAngelis, an architect who served on Modesto City Schools’ bond oversight committee from 2001 to 2003.
DeAngelis, like DeMartini, found out that making dollars is a much higher priority than making sense.
“The Zacharias Road site is a carbon copy of the Gregori case,” says DeMartini. “Only the names are changed.”
Even before taking office, Jim DeMartini took his job seriously. He visited county agencies and offices, and endeavored to fully understand his myriad responsibilities. A prosperous farmer who employs twenty full-time workers, he doesn’t need the job, but he assumes by nature that acceptance of the position of County Supervisor means acceptance of responsibility for wise land use.
Not content with what he’s learned from a lifetime of farming, DeMartini is on a constant quest for knowledge. At LAFCO conferences, he attends wonky workshops with titles like, “Managing the Agricultural/Urban Interface.” He puts in long hours in his Modesto office and still manages to maintain close contact with his constituents. Despite Stanislaus County’s long record of destroying farmland and promoting sprawl, DeMartini keeps working for smart growth.
Given the reluctance of local politicians to take on realtors, developers and powerful landowners, DeMartini is going to need lots of help. Local media, who profit from growth, are loathe to develop ongoing stories on the manifold problems stemming from bad planning. And growth of any kind is often the choice of merchants eager for business even with the negative consequences of sprawl. Only a more informed and active citizenry will enable better planning by electing representatives willing to establish hard boundaries, open space, and agricultural preserves. Meanwhile, the doughty West Side farmer is nowhere close to giving up on his quest to protect priceless farmland.
“Growth might be inevitable,” says Jim DeMartini, “but bad planning isn’t.”
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