At the January 28, 2014 Modesto City Council meeting, Councilmembers Dave Cogdill Jr., Bill Zoslocki, and Dave Lopez voted to begin a comprehensive rewrite of the Modesto General Plan.
A majority of the City Council voted down the proposal due to the high cost, but what exactly were the three proponents after? Councilmember Cogdill stated that the Modesto General Plan was out of date because it had not been updated “since 1995” and because new development has been “piecemeal.”
The previous General Plan update was actually completed in 2003. Updates are done about every ten years. To say that development in Modesto is done on a piecemeal basis is laughable because development can only be done on a piecemeal basis.
When a developer acquires a property, he develops it as quickly as he can in order to recoup capital. Developers usually are unable to acquire large blocks of land because the land has already been very much subdivided within Modesto’s sphere of influence. Therefore, only a small planned area can be developed at one time. Subsequent developments only occur as landowners sell to the developers.
1990’s General Plan History
When the General Plan was updated in the 1990’s, the Council at the time adopted the Village system. The intent of the system was to eliminate the piecemeal development of land, as currently lamented by Mr. Cogdill, and provide for the planning of entire areas of new development called villages. Developers said they supported the new Plan.
After the citizens of Modesto voted to establish Village One, the residential developers who had endorsed the Plan suddenly discovered that they didn’t like it!
Previous to the Villages, developers were free to develop on all sides of Modesto wherever they could buy land. Suddenly, the new Plan only allowed orderly development within Village One. The next village was not to be built until the first one was finished. Hence, the new system for development did not allow developers to build houses as quickly as they wanted because landowners within Village One often weren’t ready to sell when developers were ready to buy and build.
So, shortly after the Village concept was incorporated in the General Plan, a large scale effort was undertaken by the residential developers to circumvent it. They applied for exceptions to the 1990’s General Plan south of the Tuolumne River, and in various locations on the north and east sides of town.
The City Council of the late 1990’s was very accommodating, rubber stamping project after project, causing Village One to languish. Since developers could buy land and build outside Village One, little construction took place within Village One for a number of years.
So while every General Plan since the 1990’s shows that development is to take place on an orderly basis, the actual practice has been to operate in the pre 1990’s historic piecemeal manner that Councilmember Cogdill reportedly laments.
Probable Outcome of General Plan Rewrite
One can speculate as to the probable outcome of a new General Plan had the City Council passed Mr. Cogdill’s proposal. First, the City of Modesto would have spent an enormous amount of money hiring consultants and expending staff time to do the rewrite. This comes at a time when the City is unable to maintain funding for existing services. Second, urban developers would probably have been given more latitude to develop helter-skelter and piecemeal as they did under the General Plan prior to 1990. Third, the results of the rewrite would have included an outward expansion of the city limits and the sphere of influence. Modesto’s current sphere of influence represents a land area at build out comparable to the land area of the City and County of San Francisco. However, this is not a large enough land area for urban developers like Cogdill and Zoslocki. In support of the developer interests that they represent, their goal is to convert as much of the area farm land to urban use as they can.
Council member Dave Lopez, who has said in the past that he supports preserving farm land, did not provide a clear message as to why he supported the proposal to redo the entire General Plan. Perhaps he honestly felt a whole new General Plan would do the community some good. However, his lack of concern regarding how an expensive update would adversely affect the annual budget and service delivery is perplexing.
The Chronic Long Range Planning Problem
Due to the domination of the Modesto City Council by urban development interests, the city has a chronic problem in planning long term land use. This is because competing interests within the development sector constantly pull at city government to go in different directions. It is impossible to stick to any plan when it is the mission of the Council members to cater to the wishes of the developers.
What Modesto desperately needs is permanent urban limit lines and politicians with the will to stick to the existing General Plan. The reason for this is simple: No matter what plan is devised, the factions within the development community will work to corrupt it through countless requests for exceptions and variances. Therefore, the best way to operate is to stick with the existing plan, don’t take any more land from the surrounding farms, and force developers to start building upward rather than outward.