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Regional Planning in the San Joaquin Valley
What Will Result from Multiple Goals, Processes and Players?

Almond trees in bloom in the San Joaquin Valley

The San Joaquin Valley is California’s leading agricultural area, responsible for more than $20 billion in annual food production. It is also one of the fastest-growing areas in the country, losing 6 square miles of farmland every year to urban development since 1990. And by 2050 its population is expected to more than double to 9 million people. With this kind of growth, the future of agriculture in the San Joaquin depends on how well the region plans to accommodate new development.

Until 2004, the only planning for growth occurring in the San Joaquin Valley was being done by the region’s eight counties and more than 30 cities that have authority over land use. There was little or no coordination among them and localities, all seeking to grow their economies, seemed to compete for new development by approving just about anything proposed by developers. Our 2006 research report, The Future Is Now: Central Valley Farmland at the Tipping Point, compared local land use policies with the development patterns that were actually taking place. In categories like avoidance of prime farmland and efficiency of development—measured by per capita land consumption—few jurisdictions lived up to the intentions of their officially adopted plans. Overall, almost two-thirds of all land developed in the San Joaquin between 1990 and 2004 was high quality farmland and an acre of this land was being developed for every eight new residents, only one-half to one-third as many as in other regions of California.

Regional Planning Comes to the Valley

Regional planning began in the San Joaquin Valley in 2005, when the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley, a blue ribbon committee convened by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, recommended in its Strategic Action Plan that the Councils of Government (COGs), representing eight separate counties, come together to lead a process that would produce an “integrated framework for sustainable growth,” including a strategy for growth and conservation for the next 50 years. Today, there are at least three regional planning exercises taking place in the Valley, each with different objectives, timetables and officials responsible for their conduct.


In response to the Partnership’s recommendation, a collaboration of the region’s COGs launched the San Joaquin Valley Blueprint as eight parallel but separate planning processes. Three years later in April 2009, the San Joaquin Valley Regional Policy Council, comprised of two elected officials and an alternate from each county COG, adopted 12 smart growth principles and recommended a “preferred growth scenario” for the Valley that would, if implemented, reduce the amount of land consumed by urban growth between now and 2050 by 34 percent compared with the status quo trend. (See story below) Blueprint leaders are currently in the process of preparing an implementation plan and a planners’ toolkit, designed to help local governments turn the recommended goals into policy and, ultimately, to on-the-ground results.

The Blueprint focuses on the form of urban growth and does not address the use of rural lands that comprise most of the area of the San Joaquin Valley. Recognizing this, the Regional Policy Council has allocated funding to do what might be called a “greenprint” for the future of farmland, habitat, floodplains and other resources in the Valley. This effort will begin in late March and holds great promise for the conservation and wise management of the Valley’s incomparable food-producing and natural resources.

Sustainable Communities Strategies

In 2008, the passage of SB 375 introduced a new planning regime for California’s metropolitan planning organizations (including COGs), requiring that housing and transportation plans be integrated into Sustainable Communities Strategies to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets set by the California Air Resources Board (CARB). The targets must be met by building more compact communities served by public transit, thus reducing vehicle travel – and, of done well, could save farmland. In November 2010, CARB established preliminary targets for the Valley: a five percent reduction by 2020 and a 10 percent reduction by 2035. These targets will be revisited as better modeling is developed for the Valley. No formal plan or strategy for addressing these targets has yet been formulated by the COGs.

Also in 2010, the Strategic Growth Council (SGC) made Sustainable Communities Grant awards (also known as Prop 84 grants) to several jurisdictions in the Valley. Altogether, the Valley received eight grants, totaling more than $5.6 million to fund planning efforts for sustainable growth. These grants vary among projects, including climate action plans, general plan updates, corridor improvement, and Blueprint and SB 375 implementation. The grants also included $1 million for a San Joaquin Valley Blueprint Roadmap intended help Valley cities and counties integrate general plan updates with the Sustainable Communities Strategies (SCS).

Lending support to the many regional planning efforts are several tools and technical assistance centers. Assisting with the CARB target-setting process is a planning tool called Rapid Fire developed by Calthorpe Associates as part of the Vision California project. This work in progress begun in 2009 and will eventually include a spatial GIS model. Funded by the HSRA and the state Strategic Growth Council, Rapid Fire is a model that calculates a wide variety of regional impacts of hypothetical urban growth scenarios based on real-life place types found in California. Among the impacts it can model are the consumption of farmland and other types of land, GHG and other air emissions, water and energy usage, and the cost of constructing and maintaining infrastructure. As part of the CARB process, Rapid Fire was used to evaluate the GHG impacts of growth scenarios proposed by MPOs throughout California, including the San Joaquin Valley Blueprint. Blueprint leaders have expressed interest in having Calthorpe develop the capacity of Rapid Fire to analyze fiscal impacts of development scenarios to assist Valley jurisdictions with implementation of the Blueprint and refinement of local general plans.

Smart Valley Places

In 2010, 14 San Joaquin Valley cities formed a formal compact for sustainable growth called Smart Valley Places. It is based on the premise that a partnership among cities, rather than counties, COGS or other governmental entities, is “the best and most effective way to create and coordinate a pool of resources, templates, models, technical expertise, and utilize the local land use and zoning authority required, that will lead to the practical and measurable implementation of long-term San Joaquin Valley sustainability.” It is intended to build on the California Partnership recommendations and the Blueprint to integrate some, if not all, of the planning processes taking place in the Valley. One of its explicit objectives is to help local governments modify their general plans to achieve the SB 375 GHG reduction targets. Another is to promote the livability principles articulated by the federal HUD-EPA-DOT Partnership for Sustainable Communities which has awarded a $4 million grant to the Smart Valley Places consortium.

High Speed Rail

Since 2004, the California High Speed Rail Authority (HSRA) has been planning for construction of a bullet train through the San Joaquin Valley, linking southern California, the Bay Area and Sacramento. Nothing better underscores the need for truly regional planning than this $40 billion project that will cross jurisdiction boundaries, connect communities and stimulate economic development that could simply lead to more urban sprawl. But planning for the rail system has taken place without much coordination with the Blueprint or other regional planning processes.  As one observer said, “They’re doing the hardware without the software that will make it work.” Soon, HSRA intends to break ground on the first segment of track in a remote area of the southern San Joaquin Valley – rather than between major population centers – even though full funding of the system is far from assured and the agriculture community is very concerned about its impact on the land, irrigation systems and the transport of both inputs and food products to and from farms, suppliers and markets.

What Will Come Of It All?

The multiplication of regional planning processes in the San Joaquin Valley is a welcome development in a region where communities, such as Modesto, Fresno and Bakersfield, are no longer as distinctive and isolated as they once were and the impacts of growth in one county increasingly affect its neighbors. Communication and cooperation among cities and counties has never been more robust, though there is still a tendency for local communities to “do their own thing.” Ultimately, the success of any regional plan or growth strategy will depend largely on how cities and counties implement it. Compounding the challenge is the fact that the various regional planning processes— Blueprint, Sustainable Communities Strategies, Smart Valley Places and, hopefully, High Speed Rail—all have somewhat different objectives, timetables and sets of officials responsible for carrying them out. In view of this, it is legitimate to ask whether these different planning processes will coalesce in a way that will produce a common vision and a unified plan for future growth and development in the San Joaquin Valley.


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