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Turlock Council Still Plans for Future Housing West of Freeway

The possibility to change a previous Turlock City Council’s decision of the General Plan Update preferred growth plans, that includes future housing development west of Freeway 99, was discussed at a Special Joint Turlock City Council and Planning Commission Meeting on Tuesday night.
The issue arose from a March 1, 2011, Special Joint Turlock City Council and Planning Commission Meeting when Planning Commission Chair Mike Brem continued to express his concern, and for the most part the entire Planning Commission’s suggestion, of not planning on building houses west of Freeway 99. Brem also stated that he did not believe growing west with houses was the will of the people of Turlock.
Throughout nearly two years of public workshops, City meetings, and gathering public input toward the General Plan Update, a document to guide Turlock’s growth over the next 20 years, a majority of the information gathered from the public has been that Turlock should grow compactly and preserve valuable farm land.
Planning Chair Mike Brem’s questioning sparked a City Council discussion about changing the preferred land use plans and possibly taking out the northwest growth as approved by a previous City Council on August 23, 2010. Councilwoman Mary Jackson was interested at looking at the possibility but there was a cost associated with this change.
City Attorney Phaedra Norton advised the Turlock City Council and Planning Commission that the item to change the General Plan Update’s preferred land use decision was not on the agenda and if discussed, would violate the Brown Act.
Tuesday’s, March 29, 2011, special joint meeting was scheduled to discuss a potential change in the preferred land use plan as well as the range of alternatives to be evaluated in the Turlock General Plan Update Environmental Impact Report (EIR).
An out of town attorney, Richard Mowery, represented clients who did not want to be identified in concerns over a possible Brown Act violation as he referred to a document that his clients believe insinuates unknown Council direction to remove the northwest area from the preferred land use before the item was even agendized for a public meeting required by law.
Mowery specifically referred to a document in the City Council agenda packet dated February 2011 that requested a quote to remove the northwest zone “based on direction from City Council will evaluate a new preferred plan that was previously adopted.”
“As far as transparency and governance, I’m asking the City Council to look into this to see if anything took place that was improper, if there was any Brown Act Violation,” said Richard Mowery.
 Mowery went on to say that the document implies that somehow someone from the City Council issued some kind of a directive to have this workup done on an item that was never agendized.
City Manager Roy Wasden stated that the document was from Principal Planner Leslie Gould, of Dyett & Bhatia, who is working on the General Plan Update process for the City of Turlock. The document was for Omni-Means to provide a quote for informational purposes and that no action has been taken.
“Actually, that document was prepared at my request just so I had that information in my hands given that there was a lot of debate within the community as to the possibility of changing this preferred land use plan,” clarified Deputy Director of Planning Debbie Whitmore. “It was not at the direction of the City Council at all.”
After that issue was addressed and the City Council and Planning Commission was given a report by City Planning Staff about potential options for changing the preferred land use plan and EIR alternatives to be studied required by law.
To change the current preferred land use plan, growing southeast and then northwest, it would cost an additional $40,232 to the current $1.2 million General Plan Update process for extra contracted planning work. The funding mechanism proposed was RDA tax increment.
The Council and Planning Commission then heard from 10 public speakers, 8 for not changing the preferred land use plan and taking out the northwest area from it and 2 for changing it to take out the northwest and only grow southeast with infill development.
The Council’s current approved land use plan calls for growing southeast first and then northwest, only after 70 percent of the southeast is developed. Both areas would accommodate 18,000 housing units over the next 20 years of growth while Turlock only saw 120 housing units built over the last two years.
The Turlock Planning Commission was once again polled by Mayor Lazar about what they think, and while all still reiterated their concern about building houses west of Freeway 99 in the northwest part of Turlock, Planning Commissioner Mike Brem and Alternative Commissioner Victor Pedroza could not see spending $40,000 on taking out an alternative that may be adopted or not by Council in the finalization of the General Plan Update process. Planning Commissioner Jeff Hillberg stated that the decision to spend $40,000 or not is a Council decision and not a Planning Commission decision.
Attorney Richard Mowery also stated that even though the use of RDA funds may be broad, he felt that the use of RDA funds for creating a General Plan was inappropriate.
While the City Attorney did state that the use of RDA funds were broad and that tax increment, or funds required to go toward affordable housing issues, would be appropriately spent since the General Plan impacts housing and 40 percent of the City is included in the RDA area.
Planning Chair Mike Brem believed that RDA funds could be better used and felt that the City has not always spent RDA funds as wisely as it could have.
Dyett & Bhatia Principal Planner Leslie Gould stated via a scheduled conference call that the entire process still has about 12 months to be completed.
In that time, there will be more public meeting, potential legal challenges during the EIR process, and the opportunity for one alternative or some combination of alternatives to be chosen by the Turlock City Council. The Turlock City council is not locked into the current preferred land use plan, but only directing areas of growth to be studied for impacts.
In closing discussion, Councilman Forrest White said, “This discussion took place twenty some years ago, more than that, probably thirty some years ago, when we talked about Taylor Road and basically the canal and Taylor was then end of going north.”
“At the same time, it was just a given that the freeway was on the west side,” said Councilman White. “I think now we’re at that point where we say Taylor Road is the north, the freeway is the west.”
“I think you have to look at what this decision means regarding the freeway, not for today, but for twenty, thirty years down the road. Do you want another Modesto or Ceres?”
Councilman Bill DeHart agreed with Councilman White about there being natural boundaries but had real concern over spending $40,000 on the change of plans right now in the process.
“With those facts being on the table, I’m a little concerned that we would even consider spending money to figure that out,” said Councilman DeHart. “It’s right there, it’s pretty obvious to me.”
“Since I’ve campaigned, since I’ve been elected, I have consistently said no housing west of Highway 99,” stated Councilwoman Mary Jackson.
“The majority of the Council did not listen back in August and they tried to convince me that ‘Oh, we’re just thinking about this,” said Councilwoman Jackson. “I’m sorry, it’s opening Pandora’s Box for housing in the northwest.”
“I’d rather spend the $40,000 right now than spend more than that.”
Councilwoman Amy Bublak expressed concern about how changing the preferred land use plan came about that Attorney Richard Mowery and another person who spoke in public also brought up.
“I was never contacted by one person, after we made that vote, saying lets rechange the growth and go in another direction,” said Councilwoman Bublak.
“I’m kind of worried about the knowledge of just now hearing about that somebody wanted to change it,” stated Councilwoman Bublak. “If the vote doesn’t change tonight, that tells me that a minority is making a lot of movement with our personnel.”
Bublak also had concerns with spending $40,000.
“We have to go into negotiations, and we’re going to face our employees. In spending $40,000 and then asking them to give us part of their paycheck…  I really struggle with that.”
Bublak continued to support not making a change to the studied southeast and northwest areas of growth.
“There are too many unknowns as far as the southeast, it’s going to take 70 percent to grow there first, and then if we can’t get that interchange we need to look to the northwest,” said Bublak. “We have to have an alternative, that’s what we’re here for. We’re the vision.”
Mayor John Lazar agreed with Planning Commission Chair Mike Brem.
“I have the concerns Mike does, I have not been a proponent of housetops on the westside,” said Mayor Lazar. “I just don’t think you should build homes next to our industrial area. Having said that, I can’t justify spending $40,000 right now either.”
“I suggest we move forward with the process,” said Lazar in closing. “Let the process work with public participation and vote on it as we go forward.”
Councilman Forrest White’s motion, with Councilwoman Mary Jackson’s second, to spend $40,000 to redo the plan failed.
Councilwoman Amy Bublak motioned that there be no change to the preferred land use and to direct staff to evaluate the two alternative preferred land use plans approved by the Turlock City Council on August 23, 2010 to be studied for the EIR. Councilman Bill DeHart and Mayor John Lazar voted in support of the motion.
“Really, no choice has been made,” summarized Mayor Lazar. “This process is moving forward.”