By Radley Reep
Why is land-use planning such a slippery mess?
Well, the answer’s quite simple actually: It’s intended to be that way.
Title 7 of the California Government Code charges city and county governments with the responsibility to prepare and administer comprehensive, long-term general plans for the physical development of their respective jurisdictions.
That’s all well and good, but a glance at the Senate’s Governance and Finance Committee Web page on land-use planning is disconcerting. The Web page reads:
Senate Local Government Committee
“Jello Without The Mold”
State Laws for Local Land Use Decisions
California’s elaborate statutes that govern land use decisions tell local officials how to proceed but rarely tell them why. Instead of focusing on results, current law concentrates on process.
Given that the state’s planning statutes do not focus on results, it’s not surprising to find a comparable situation with respect to the County of Fresno and its General Plan. None of the County’s 52 General Plan goals include measurable objectives. In fact, the goals of the plan are purposely nonspecific. The General Plan defines a plan goal as the “ultimate purpose of an effort stated in a way that is general in nature and immeasurable.”
Measuring the Results of Plan Implementation
Concerned that the goals of the County’s 2000–2020 General Plan might not be met, several months prior to plan adoption in 2000, the League of Women Voters of Fresno (LWVF) recommended that County staff develop a General Plan “indicators program.” Indicators are data of various types that, when collected over a period of time, serve as tools to evaluate progress toward the attainment of goals, policies and programs. For example, to measure progress toward meeting the County’s goal of conserving agricultural land, the LWVF recommended that the County track and report annually the amount of agricultural acreage taken out of production.
In the spring of 2003, the Planning Commission heartily endorsed the concept, and on Aug. 26, 2003, the Board of Supervisors directed its staff “to return to the Board with [an] implementation plan on the indicators for use on a regular basis.”
Unfortunately, despite that Board direction, an indicators program never materialized.
Undaunted, in 2006, as comment on the County’s initiation of a five-year review of the General Plan, the LWVF again recommended that the County adopt an indicators program. As a consequence, the County added to its third draft revision of the General Plan Policy Document (January 2013) new Program LU-H.C, which would create an indicators program.
“The County shall develop an Indicators Program that monitors the success of the County in achieving the goals of the General Plan. The County shall conduct an annual review of the Indicators Program and report the findings to the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors.”
The anticipated addition of an indicators program was good news, as the County would have a program that could measure the success in achieving important General Plan goals. But then, in December 2017, with the release of the sixth draft revision of the General Plan, the County eliminated Program LU-C.A. The County, it seems, really does prefer Jello without the mold.
Similarly, the County proposed and then later scrapped in 2017 programs requiring development of a water-efficient landscape ordinance (PF-C.G), preparation and implementation of a climate action plan (OS-G.B) and development of an inventory of scenic resources and a plan for their management (OS-K.A and OS-K.B, respectively).
Preventing Policies from Shapeshifting
Arguably, one of the County’s most important policies supporting the conservation of agricultural land is Policy LU-A.1, which reads:
“The County shall…direct urban growth…to cities, unincorporated communities, and other areas planned for such development where public facilities and infrastructure are available.”
The intent of Policy LU-A.1 is simple enough—to steer clear of the kind of urban sprawl that had been proposed for unincorporated areas of the County in the 1980s (Millerton New Town and Ball Ranch) and the 1990s (Quail Lake Estates and Copper River Ranch).
Policy LU-A.1 reinforces a major theme of the General Plan—Urban-Centered Growth.
The plan promotes compact growth by directing most new urban development to incorporated cities and existing urban communities that already have the infrastructure to accommodate such growth.” [LWVF emphasis]
A test of the capacity of Policy LU-A.1 to avert the urbanization of land designated Agriculture came in 2011 when the County enlarged the boundary of the Friant Community Plan to include the Friant Ranch project, which called for the construction of approximately 2,500 single- and multifamily residential units on land designated Agriculture.
The LWVF and the Sierra Club together filed suit, alleging among other things, that project approval was inconsistent with Policy LU-A.1. In 2015, the Fifth District Court of Appeals disagreed with the LWVF and the Sierra Club, ruling that County approval was consistent with Policy LU-A.1. The court reasoned:
“The parties disagree about the meaning of the County Ag Use Policy [LU-A.1] and whether County violated the policy when it approved the project. We conclude that County interpreted the policy in a reasonable manner when it determined agricultural land use designations could be changed by amendment and a project is consistent with the County Ag Use Policy if some public facilities and infrastructure are available in the Project area.” [LWVF emphasis]
So did the LWVF and the Sierra Club misunderstand the policy, or was the policy poorly written, or both? In retrospect, it seems that what the public failed to understand was that a poorly defined policy can shapeshift.
Like many policies in the General Plan, Policy LU-A.1 is a simple one-sentence statement without much specificity, and lack of detail can result in ambiguity. Consider, for example, the portion of the policy that directs urban growth to areas “planned for such development where public facilities and infrastructure are available.” Does this mean that the requisite planning, facilities and infrastructure must predate project approval, or does it mean that they can arise from the project itself?
Either way, given the court’s support for the manner in which the County interpreted Policy LU-A.1, the County could easily approve, for example, thousands of new homes near any number of small rural communities, or it could establish a brand new city along the I-5 corridor. County supervisors would only need to designate a particular Agricultural area for urban uses and demonstrate that some public facilities and infrastructure are available in the project area.
Alarmingly, the most recent 2017 draft revision of the General Plan proposes to add to Policy LU-A.1 the italicized phrase shown below.
“The County shall…direct urban growth…to cities, unincorporated communities, and other areas planned for such development where public facilities and infrastructure are available or can be provided consistent with the adopted General or Community Plan.”
Adding the phrase “or can be provided” would enable the County to approve urban projects in agricultural areas where no public facilities or infrastructure now exit. This proposed change calls into question the County’s longstanding policy to protect agricultural lands from conversion to urban uses.
Must land-use planning be such a slippery mess? Obviously not. And it won’t be once county residents and elected officials come to agree that it’s in everyone’s best interest that policies and programs are results-oriented and clearly understood by all.
Radley Reep is a retired teacher with the Fresno Unified School District. For the past 10 years, he’s been engaged in research for the League of Women Voters of Fresno in the area of land-use planning focusing primarily on the implementation of the Fresno County General Plan. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.