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City Council, planning debate pros and cons of top growth plans

POSTED May 25, 2010 11:48 p.m.

The Turlock of 2030 has been narrowed down to four defined visions with two clear frontrunners, but the question remains: Should Turlock grow entirely to the southeast or in a more compact plan that spreads new homes between the northwest and southeast?

Members of the Turlock City Council and Planning Commission met Tuesday night to review the City of Turlock General Plan Update, a document that will guide the city as it grows by 15,000 homes and 45,000 residents over the next 20 years.

“It’s not a decision night, but it’s definitely an engagement night,” said Leslie Gould, principal with Dyett & Bhatia Urban & Regional Planners.

The issues are many with Turlock’s planned growth, ranging from the amount of farmland — by necessity — consumed by growth to the potentially massive costs associated with building new roads, sewage lines and storm basins.

Planners from Dyett & Bhatia assessed four growth plans on those issues and more, offering their findings for the first time Tuesday evening. Two plans — one which puts all growth in the southeast and a so-called most compact plan which uses a large parcel in the northwest and some easily accessible land in the southeast — were tops in every category.

The southeast alternative would eliminate 1,092 acres of farmland, while the most compact alternative would claim 1,140 acres. The most sprawling option, a “moderate compact” plan would use most of the available space both northwest and southeast of Turlock, totaling 1,684 acres of farmland.

Every option would focus on developing master planned, compact, walkable communities with a wide range of housing types and a park system that ranks among the top in the state. All would be denser than Turlock’s current housing — jumping up to a maximum of 9.1 units per acre from Turlock’s current 5.6 units per acre — and focus more heavily on the sort of multi-family developments which are in demand in Turlock.

The options differentiate themselves in terms of density and cost related primarily to road projects.

“Every alternative needs some improvements, but the cost differences are huge,” Gould said.

Some proposals could require new highway interchanges or necessitate modification of existing interchanges, at costs upward of $200 million. Others could force the construction of costly six-lane thoroughfares.

The southwest only option, for example, could accommodate about two-thirds of the planned growth without triggering a new interchange. But the idea that Turlock’s growth could hinge on a CalTrans project with an uncertain timetable worried Councilman Ted Howze.

“That interchange could be 20 to 30 years and $100 million in the future,” Howze said.

An interchange in southeast Turlock is currently in the planning stages as part of the project to reroute Highway 165, but construction would begin no earlier than 2017, assuming a smooth environmental review.

Infill development will meet some of Turlock’s housing needs — between 3,500 and 5,000 are called for in the growth plans — but that sort of construction brings problems of its own. Older areas of town already have rundown streets, and new subdivisions in old neighborhoods would likely be exempt from benefit assessment districts that help pay for street surfacing.

“Too much infill is going to be just as costly,” Councilwoman Amy Bublak said.

Utility costs were also a concern Tuesday, with potential costs ranging from $174 million at the cheapest for the southeast only plan to $213 million for a northwest only plan. Those cost differences were in large part due to superior groundwater in the southeast, allowing for easier well drilling, and inexpensive sewer construction, due to gravity-assisted flows.

But infrastructure costs are not the only reasons to choose a growth plan, Gould said.

As Turlock grows by annexing land from Stanislaus County, it receives less property tax revenue from new developments due to tax sharing agreements. In recent annexation developments, Turlock received just 3 percent of property tax dollars, compared to 8 to 10 percent in older neighborhoods.

The growth alternatives also provide differing challenges to public safety departments, which may see difficulties in providing police and fire service to far-flung neighborhoods.

Even the city Redevelopment Agency plays into consideration. Property within the RDA zone returns fewer property tax dollars to the city’s General Fund but bolsters the RDA’s coffers.

Based on all the factors, Howze believed the most compact growth scenario seemed the most fiscally realistic alternative, allowing a good deal of build out before costly highway interchanges would be required. But he asked planners to return with a phased development scenario, showing just how much land could be developed before triggering expensive improvements.

Planning Commissioner Mike Brem, on the other hand, believed the other frontrunner — the southeast only plan — was the most viable alternative, for many of the same reasons.

Whatever the final decision — which could come in as little as a month — comment on Tuesday pointed toward the likely selection of the most financially viable plan.

“I’d like to own a Jaguar but the likelihood is that I’m going to buy a Ford Escort,” Howze said.

To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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