A way to halt sprawl, conserve farmland


FRESNO, CALIF. -- It has to be one of the most remarkable grass-roots alliances the nation has ever seen -- builders and environmentalists, farm and business interests -- forces historically at odds -- suddenly agreeing that sprawl needs to be corralled.

The coalition has taken shape in Fresno, America's No. 1 farm county ($3.3 billion in yearly farm sales). It's called the Growth Alternatives Alliance; its recent report is called "A Landscape of Choice."

The message: Unplanned expansion is a deadly threat to the world's most productive agricultural region. Assertive action is needed to preserve farmland, establish an urban growth boundary, focus on compact urban development.

The alliance's members include the Fresno County Farm Bureau, Fresno Chamber of Commerce, Fresno Business Council, the American Farmland Trust and, amazingly, the Building Industry Association of the San Joaquin Valley.

Smart growth

Statewide, the builders oppose any or all ideas to limit the land they can build on. But Jeffrey Harris, their San Joaquin Valley executive, says the "Landscape" report isn't for limiting growth; instead it shows ways to "entice" home buyers to make smarter decisions.

The local political establishment, rocked by two years of "sting" operations and trials alleging private developer payoffs to politicians, may be in a poor position to resist.

There are compelling reasons for Fresno County to look afresh at its land use. Though its fields provide a phenomenally rich yield of vegetables and fruits, an avalanche of population growth is projected for the area, from 776,000 people today to 2.5 million in 2040.

Acre after acre of the precious farmland is being gobbled up. The American Farmland Trust, very active in the area under field representative Gregory Kirkpatrick, produced a 1995 study showing that if Fresno County's current low-density sprawling growth pattern continues, almost a quarter million acres of farmland, land that now yields hundreds of millions of dollars worth of yearly farm sales, would be lost by 2040.

"This time, there's no more farmland over the hill. We can't move agriculture like we did last time [from coastal counties to the Central Valley]. The valley has a chance to be different -- if we have the political will," says Carol Whiteside, director of the Great Valley Center.

Urban growth boundaries are the alliance's most startling proposal. They would be open to change by local authorities, and not as airtight as those in Oregon. Yet merely announcing growth boundaries would be a generation ahead of today's "anything goes" or "who-financed-my-last-campaign?" land policies.

Just as heartening are the complementary policies urged by the Fresno Growth Alliance. For example:

New neighborhoods, built at the urban fringe, should be compact, transit and pedestrian friendly, with narrow streets. Existing neighborhoods should be retrofitted to create lively activity centers. Schools could become multipurpose community service facilities, including child care, health and neighborhood parks.

Across the region, downtown and village centers should be built up. All neighborhoods should have a mix of single- and multiple-family housing -- an end, in other words, to single-price and single-class housing complexes. Zoning standards that limit heights, or require surplus acres of commercial parking, should go back to the drawing boards.

Fresno's business-environmental coalition has embraced, in short, most of the New Urbanist, community friendly planning values developed in California and nationwide in the last decade.

Mutual understanding

Former Fresno Mayor Daniel Whitehurst suggests there have been some fascinating "positive discoveries." On one side, "home builders have come to realize the importance of agriculture to the valley's future economy." On the other, farmers have begun to see that revitalizing cities, introducing transit and master planned communities, is "one of the best ways to curb urban sprawl."

The "tough part," Mr. Whitehurst notes in an introduction to "Landscape of Choice," will come when real-life conflicts arise: a single-family neighborhood tries to shout down apartments next door, or a builder and farm family are told "no" to development on "prime ag" land.

Those conflicts are inevitable, of course, in any community anywhere that gets serious about thoughtful land use.

Political leaders will find it a lot tougher to obfuscate or run for cover. Conversely, when they do stand up for wise land stewardship, they're likely to find allies that were never there before.

Neal R. Peirce is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 5/11/98

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