Thursday, June 12, 2014

LAFCO fires a warning shot over Modesto's bow

Last week was not a good week for the City of Modesto (COM) as they soldiered on towards their hostile land grabs upon Salida and Wood Colony. Their General Plan Notice of Preparation for the Master Environmental Impact Report (MEIR) public comment period closed on May 30, 2014 and two of the responses submitted were shared with the Salida Municipal Advisory Council because they include comments about Salida. The first one received, which had been submitted by the Stanislaus Local Area Formation Commission (LAFCO, the deciding body for land annexations) clearly contains shades of things to come.
LAFCO begins their response by informing the city that their NOP is "inadequate in its description of the project." It details the inconsistencies between the MEIR that COM adopted in 2008 to the current proposed scope.

But the real fun begins on page 3 with LAFCO firing a warning shot over COM's bow:
"In order to expand these areas, the Commission must determine that insufficient land is available within the current sphere of influence, that growth has been directed away from prime agricultural lands, and that the additional territory will not exceed the twenty-year period for probable growth and development (or ten years for a primary area.)" 
This raises many questions and issues for the COM. First off, does COM have an insufficient amount of land already within its inventory? COM "removed" 1,254 acres that had already been approved by LAFCO without anyone publicly asking them to. Why would they do that? Well because they know that it may pose even more of an uphill battle to develop that land since most of it belongs to a very prominent family. So the first million-dollar question is whether LAFCO will agree that Modesto truly has "insufficient" land in their inventory for development when their total portfolio contains over 11,000 acres in their current sphere of influence outside of the city limits?

What may prove even more tough for them is justifying expansion into prime agricultural land when LAFCO clearly states that growth should be "directed away from prime agricultural lands". One of the Modesto City Council's favorite talking points is, "Well no one is going to make you sell your land." If that's the case, then why should LAFCO approve territory for Modesto when it may not be available in ten or even twenty years? Unfortunately, there are a few landowners in Wood Colony who do want to sell and view their land there as more than just an agricultural investment. And once one sells and their land is developed, this creates a domino effect because who wants to farm next to a commercial development or office park?

Noted next in the LAFCO NOP response is one of the best items for both Salida and Wood Colony:
"There are two communities of interest that the City's proposed Sphere of Influence would encroach upon--Salida and Wood Colony.  Each of these should be discussed relative to LAFCO's adopted policy that states, "sphere of influence boundaries shall, to the extent possible, maintain a separation between existing communities to protect open space and agricultural lands and the identity of an individual community."
Modesto is already nipping at Salida's heels at Pelandale. And Modesto has already received three large land annexations from Salida's tax base (Costco, Kaiser, and Kiernan Business Park East) in the last fifteen years. How much more of Salida's municipal lifeblood will Modesto be allowed to drain? The COM is asking for another large scale land grab with its inclusion of land that's designated for Salida in the Salida Community Plan to COM's Sphere of Influence. If this is allowed, this is just one more nail in the coffin for Salida to ever be its own city and preserve its identity as an individual community. Additionally, if Modesto takes Salida's land north of Kiernan, this would be a major geographical movement towards turning Salida into an unincorporated county island.

"Wood Colony Plaza"
at Sisk & Pelandale
The LAFCO paragraph looks even better for Wood Colony with its reference to protecting "open space and agricultural lands" along with their identity. How would a commercial business park or industrial section protect Wood Colony's identity? Modesto has already named a shopping center "Wood Colony Plaza" and I can vouch for many Wood Colony neighbors in saying they don't view that center as "preserving their identity".

The next requirement outlined by LAFCO is the "City/County Meeting Requirement". Since all five Stanislaus County Supervisors have expressed support for Salida and Wood Colony, they'll hopefully tell the COM to get lost. Then this would revert to the COM proceeding with submitting their application without agreement and the LAFCO Commission will consider their application in line with adopted LAFCO policies.

And speaking of "adopted LAFCO policies", the next gauntlet that LAFCO throws down in the city's path is a section titled, "Agricultural Resources" which reiterates the reason for LAFCO's existence is "to protect and promote agriculture". This includes a policy requirement instituted in 2012 that requires applicants to prepare a "Plan for Agricultural Preservation". Seems like an oxymoron when you consider COM's plans for Wood Colony!

The LAFCO NOP response also requests information on lands in the Williamson Act, public services and a municipal service review requirement. Click here to view LAFCO's NOP response.

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