Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A tale of two counties: compact development and the general plan

Calaveras County is beginning to update its general plan. To help guide the process, the supervisors held a "visioning" meeting last week to discuss the county's future. As reported in local and regional newspapers, the board came down solidly on the side of avoiding sprawl in favor of town-centered, compact development.

Even Supervisor Tom Tryon, a property rights advocate and former Libertarian candidate for statewide office, supported locating development where it can be served with municipal water and wastewater systems.

Two of the county supervisors supported incorporating the Ahwahnee Principles into the county plan. Supervisor Steve Wilensky supported incorporating principles adopted by local communities in Calaveras District 2.

It was encouraging to see the Calaveras supervisors recognize that compact, town-centered development can protect the county's agriculture, natural resources, water quality and community character.

Contrast that with Amador County. First, we have the new defenders of sprawl, the Amador Citizens for Responsible Government, emerging to support the Placerization of Amador. Funny how what they say sounds exactly like the complaints of developer Bob Reeder at the county General Plan Advisory Committee meetings.

Then there's a pretty clear split on the GPAC between members who see the wisdom of town-centered development and a strong general plan, and those who want to continue the ad hoc, project-by-project sprawl that has characterized local growth over the last 40 years. The latter are trying to make the general plan as toothless as possible.

The cost of continuing sprawl development patterns has been brought to light at nearly every GPAC meeting over the last year. We've talked about fire, water, recreation, schools, roads, air quality, historical and cultural resources, agriculture, wildlife, economic development and more. In every instance, compact development has less impact than sprawl. In every instance, the things people love most about the county are better protected by concentrating development in compact communities than by chopping ranches and forestland into subdivisions.

At its early meetings, the GPAC came up with a pretty good vision statement for the county's future. There was broad agreement about what the county should be like 20+ years from now.

As the GPAC -- then the planning commission and board of supervisors -- continue slogging toward a general plan, they need to keep that vision in mind, and ask: Will this get us to the future we envision?

If the answer is no, the general plan is clearly heading down the wrong path. If the answer is maybe, that's the wrong path, too. And if the general plan is just too fuzzy to serve as a clear path to the vision at all, we'll end up looking like Placer, not Amador, County in the end.

Once you have a destination in mind, it's better to develop a clear route than to wander in the wilderness in hope that you might just get there one day.

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