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There's an alternative to sprawl

Jack Balshaw 1/23/02

In creating Petaluma's Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) and developing a new General Plan there's always a concern about "sprawl". There needs to be a working definition of "sprawl" so we all know what we're talking about. A recent article defined it as, " Using more land than necessary to accommodate growth". Note, sprawl isn't just "using land"; it's "using more land than necessary". Sprawl is the "wasteful use of land". Let's use that.

Any discussion of the future and growth must accept that there will be population growth in the world, nation, state and even our local area. To either presume no growth or that all growth will occur "Elsewhere" is simply saying, "There is no problem because it will go Elsewhere". This isn't very realistic. It's wishful thinking at the best and NIMBYism at the worst.

The problem is how to provide for the jobs and housing that reasonable growth will require without inducing sprawl

One form of development is leapfrog growth. Leapfrog growth leaves pieces of undeveloped, but still developable, land between new and existing development. Our UGB was premised on new development being adjacent to existing development and doesn't allow leapfrog growth. This would be a form of sprawl and so is unacceptable.

For those who consider typical subdivisions ticky tacky, perhaps 2 to 5 acre ranchettes could be the answer. This might look better than standard subdivisions but I don't think that would be acceptable as that's almost the definition of sprawl.

Another way would be to allow expansion beyond our present growth boundaries using existing or smaller size lots. This would be keeping within the definition of not using "unnecessary land" to accommodate growth. This would take in more vacant land but would develop it efficiently. Unfortunately, the Urban Growth Boundary initiative precludes changing that boundary without a citywide vote or the vote of six of the seven councilmembers, which is unlikely.

The obvious alternative to sprawl, which Petaluma has already adopted, is to develop within existing city limits, to infill using vacant land. However, in order to not run out of infill land, increased density must be encouraged to put off the eventual day when our community must grow outward. Our present 20-year urban growth boundary won't hold for 40, 60 or 100 years. For most people, as long as it holds long enough for them to move, retire or die, that's good enough.

In fairness, those wishing to constrain outward growth must cooperate and work towards supporting infill and increased residential density. To preach infill at higher density as policy but to then let each new proposal go down in flames when neighborhood opposition arises is be two faced. To be an activist in setting policy but a passivist or obstructionist when implementation is proposed denotes a NIMBY and not a planner.

In developing and implementing a new General Plan, our City Council must act responsibly and not only encourage higher density residential infill but take steps to insure that such proposals get implemented. Otherwise, they have in effect a policy encouraging high-density infill but a position in opposition to their own policy.

Development of the General Plan should be done in a manner that provides documentation for the Environmental Impact Reports that will have to accompany any individual development proposal. Documenting in the General Plan the amount of development that can be accepted within the city's water, sewer, street, etc. capacities can readily do this. This is called a Master EIR. In that way, future increments of growth don't each have to create separate expensive and time-consuming EIR's.

By defining what is and is not acceptable, the issue of sprawl can be eliminated from the city's growth decisions following acceptance of the new General Plan.


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