In a meeting termed the “most important meeting” of the Planning Commission’s recent history, commissioners voted against a proposed growth plan for Turlock, instead supporting a more compact development.
Emphasizing a need to protect farmland and maintain a compact City of Turlock, Planning commissioners on Thursday unanimously voted to reject the “preferred” General Plan and instead recommended adoption of an alternative which would see the city develop as little farmland as possible over the next 20 years, keeping residential neighborhoods east of Highway 99.
“I really think that by taking the option we chose, we're being good stewards of land, of water, of all of those things,” said Planning Commission Chairman Mike Brem.
Commissioners were faced with four alternatives Thursday, developed during a four-year process which involved myriad public meetings.
The preferred growth plan, as suggested by the Turlock City Council in 2010, would see the city grow to five large master planned new neighborhoods southeast of the existing city. A sixth new neighborhood is proposed for northwest of Highway 99.
In total, the preferred General Plan would accommodate 126,800 residents, using higher-density development while still maintaining a range of housing types from apartments to single-family homes.
But as part of the state-required environmental review process, planners reviewed three alternatives, derived from the preferred plan: growing only to three of the five southeast master plans, accommodating about 105,000 residents; growing to fill the entire southeast but foregoing the northwest, accommodating about 115,000; or having no change from the current General Plan.
That first alternative was found to have the least environmental impacts, but would accommodate only the low-end of Turlock’s growth projections. The second alternative represents a compromise, with better environmental impacts than the full “preferred” development but worse than the smaller Alternative 1, while accommodating the mid-range of growth projections. Maintaining the current General Plan was found to be most unfavorable, as the document still calls to develop the southeast, but at significantly lower densities, detrimentally impacting the environment and not fully optimizing the use of farmland.
Though the first alternative would not accommodate the full growth projected, Planning Commissioners unanimously chose it over the “preferred” General Plan. Commissioners stated the growth lined up with their personal expectations, given the down economy, and matched up with residents’ desires – compact development, using little farmland.
“It seems to me Alternative 1 would be the most logical growth projection,” Brem said. “We're growing because it's an area we feel comfortable growing into.”
Most importantly to Planning Commissioners, Alternative 1 would use only 1,015 acres of farmland, about half that of the 1,950 acres of farmland the preferred General Plan would use.
The unanimous move to recommend Alternative 1 continues the Planning Commission’s historical opposition to residential growth west of Highway 99, and dedication to preserving farmland.
To further ensure that Turlock does not grow too quickly onto farmland, commissioners recommended an additional provision which would not allow the city’s borders to expand until the first Southeast Master Plan, the Northeast Master Plan, and the East Tuolumne Master Plan have reached a combined 70 percent build-out.
In the General Plan presented to commissioners, the city’s borders could grow as soon as that first southeast area reached 70 percent build-out, potentially leaving Turlock’s northeast unfinished even as the south is built out.
“I think, on our end, it's this idea that we're not going to expand when we already have things that should be finished,” said Commissioner Elvis Dias. “We don't want to be Modesto.”
Council to decide on Tuesday
The Planning Commission’s recommended growth plan is just that – a recommendation. The final vote lies with the Turlock City Council, who will decide on a General Plan during a special, 4:30 p.m. Tuesday meeting.
The City Council and Planning Commission have differed on visions for the future of Turlock before.
The Planning Commission unanimously opposed residential growth to the west of Highway 99 in August 2010 and in March 2011 votes, citing constant citizen comment in favor of preserving prime farmland and preventing sprawl. But both times the City Council went against the commission’s direction, opting to pursue northwest growth as an option.
“I think what became very clear is that so much of the feedback we got from the community did not get translated into what the vision should be in this General Plan,” said Commissioner Soraya Fregosi, referencing the council’s direction to pursue growth west of Highway 99.
Commissioners said Thursday they were confident that they had made the best possible decision for the future of Turlock, but the final say once again lies in the council’s hands.
“We've done our job,” Brem said. “They can do whatever they want.”
The Turlock General Plan is available for review online at http://www.gpupdate.turlock.ca.us/