Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: We must re-evaluate old land-use models

In the past couple of weeks, two very interesting things occurred at local government hearings. I know that many find governmental processes tedious (or worse), and these items may at first seem mundane, but I think we’re talking about issues that loom large for our county’s future.

On Dec. 7, the Board of Supervisors continued its consideration of a 107-unit housing development proposed for Templeton. We’ve received many impassioned comments on that project, mostly from potential neighbors unhappy with its size. Of course, we’ve also heard from the developer, who thinks the project is nicely designed and should be approved.

This might seem like the usual developer versus NIMBY dispute in a small community, just a local matter that the board is there to referee, but I think this proposal has much bigger implications. It invites a countywide discussion on housing, transportation, water supply, community character and all the other puzzle pieces that we have to fit together as we map this county’s future. More on that in a bit.

On Dec. 8, we pondered a big part of that puzzle as the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments approved the 2010 update of our regional transportation plan. The plan contains a countywide list of all the road, highway, bridge and public transit projects for the next 25 years that we believe will make this county more functional, prosperous and livable.

Not surprisingly, we face a major challenge: The regional transportation plan lists $4.4 billion of needed projects, but we can optimistically expect only $1.8 billion of funding to be available. Obviously, we have to establish our priorities carefully, choose wisely where to invest scarce infrastructure funds and coordinate our transportation investments with our land-use decisions.

In fact, the land-use issues present the greatest challenge, both in planning and in execution. The planning concept is pretty straight forward. If we make more efficient use of land and locate new development strategically, we will see a wide range of benefits: conservation of important open-space resources, fewer vehicle miles traveled, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, more cost-effective government services and more affordable housing choices in livable communities.

In recent years, at many public meetings, we have heard that county residents support this concept and prefer directing future growth toward existing communities where resources are available. Our county general plan policies promote the idea of “strategic growth,” as does the regional vision of “sustainable communities” written into the new regional transportation plan. We should be proud that San Luis Obispo County is well ahead of most of California in developing this new approach to development and infrastructure investment.

The Templeton project begs the question of whether we will be able to realize this new vision. Critics take issue with the total number of new houses and, regrettably in some cases, with whether they would attract undesirable residents. I tend to think that the number of units fits within available resources, but that residents’ reactions would be much more positive if the proposal had better followed the community’s General Plan and design guidelines.

The question of whether we are willing to follow through and build what we plan is the crux of the problem here. Are we willing to realize that old land-use patterns and business models can’t be pursued indefinitely? Do we truly understand that difficult choices lie ahead?

As our local communities further define their vision for the future, we should be mindful that every choice has a consequence. We can pursue business as usual and see our public funds stretched thin, our infrastructure deteriorate and our open spaces diminish. Alternatively, we can work with developers and communities to craft projects that provide more attractive and affordable housing and transportation options for ourselves and our children.

To me, the central issues of the Templeton debate are whether we have the courage, creativity and good will to embrace the necessity of change. We need to understand and embrace the vision of sustainable communities that grow strategically and then act to realize that future. I know this challenge isn’t easy, and ongoing engagement among county and city governments, special service districts and local residents is essential.

I believe the Templeton community, and the county as a whole, can and must achieve development that is both attractive and strategic, even as we continue to refine our planning policies. I don’t know what our board’s final decision will be on this specific proposal, but this discussion is vitally important for our county’s future. I hope we can take a constructive step forward.

Bruce Gibson is the 2nd District county supervisor.