Fresno and San Joaquin counties adopt “momentous” SCSes

Advocates in two San Joaquin Valley counties are celebrating the adoption of SCSes that reduce the amount of money pumped into road widenings and begin to focus investment in communities that need it the most.

Following three years of intensive effort by ClimatePlan and our local coalition partners, last Thursday the Fresno and San Joaquin Councils of Governments both approved Sustainable Communities Strategies marked by truly historic shifts in funding and policy direction.

“A momentous occasion” in San Joaquin County

San Joaquin County’s plan slashes funding for road widening by 26% (that’s over a billion dollars), and uses the savings to increase transit funding by 28% and bike-ped funding by 78%.  Councilman Moses Zapien of Stockton made the motion, and the plan was approved on a near-unanimous vote, with only two members dissenting.

Afterwards, as the Stockton Record noted, Zapien was

“Ecstatic,” he said. “It’s a momentous occasion. I think it’s been a long time coming.”

Zapien praised a coalition of environmentalists and health advocates who “helped move the needle” beyond business-as-usual practices.

“You’ve been able to move the paradigm of our community to a more livable, walkable, lovable community,” he said.

This victory followed several years of intensive discussion and debate. The discussion particularly revolved around the growing demand for compact homes in walkable neighborhoods. The local Sustainable Communities Coalition, led by Catholic Charities Stockton Diocese, made the case for this increased demand from lower-income families, infill builders and millenials. Despite early opposition from the local Building Industry Association, the COG board approved a plan that would fully meet market demand for apartments and townhomes, rather than continuing previous plans to building 95% of homes as single-family homes.

In a county trying to emerge from recession and create local jobs, board and media discussion also addressed how walkable neighborhoods make places more economically competitive. A pair of op-eds by local infill builder Carol Ornelas, and Council of Infill Builders President Curt Johansen and ER nurse Dotty Nygard made the case, and ultimately, the Stockton Record editorial board agreed. Young entrepreneurs from Stockton business incubator Café Coop and a visiting investor from Silicon Valley testified about how walkable communities help attract and support skilled workers and new businesses.

Advocates also requested and won a refined equity analysis that can form the basis for greater attention to the needs of disadvantaged communities.

Fresno is “finally talking about the real issues”

In Fresno, advocates are celebrating the adoption of new policies to focus investment in existing communities, particularly those that need it most. This achievement is the result of an impressively broad public process and strong engagement from diverse community voices in the Community Equity Coalition, organized by Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.

Like many places, Fresno County’s recent history is unsustainable, investing in sprawling “new town” development while communities with longstanding health inequities and infrastructure deficits languish for lack of investment. This plan unfortunately continues some of those practices. For example, the plan continues to support investments in Friant Ranch, a new town in the foothills that faces heated opposition. Meanwhile, the community of Mendota, whose hardships were documented in the New York Times, would receive just 0.1% of county transportation funds, despite being home to 1.2% of the population.

Last fall, advocates drew attention to this disparity and noted that, because FresnoCOG’s budget shows a surplus of $2 billion, they have the funds to do something different. First, our local coalition put forward a plan showing what would happen if the region were to grow in existing communities rather than in Friant Ranch sprawl. While the Board did not approve that plan, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin noted that “at least we are finally talking about the real issues.” This led the board to consider – and ultimately approve – three policy proposals developed by the coalition to address these concerns.

First, FresnoCOG will conduct a needs assessment to catalogue infrastructure deficits, many of which have serious health impacts, particularly in the county’s most disadvantaged communities.

Second, a new grant program, the Sustainable Planning and Infrastructure Program, will utilize some of that $2 billion surplus to invest in planning and infrastructure for sustainable communities – and prioritize the needs identified in the assessment.

Lastly, the COG will create an ad hoc committee to help member agencies minimize the loss of farmland. Advocates had hoped for a binding Natural and Working Lands Conservation Policy to protect the agricultural economy and valuable natural resources while the region grows, but this ad hoc committee is a step in the right direction.

The newly-adopted SCS will also increase bike-ped funding by 25% and more than double transit funding, despite a total budget decline of 10%.

Over the past two hearings to adopt the plan and policies, Mendota Mayor Robert Silva, Parlier Mayor Armando Lopez, and COG Chair and Fowler Mayor David Cardenas spoke out in support of the policies and echoed the sentiment of COG Deputy Director Barbara Steck: “This has been the largest process I’ve ever seen, with collaboration by many new stakeholders… This plan is a better plan because of the diversity of engagement.”

It’s not over until Kern County sings

While Fresno and San Joaquin have adopted strong SCSes, work remains to ensure all Valley counties are on track to adopt meaningful plans. As we explained last week, Madera and Merced are currently planning to adopt plans that will not meet their greenhouse gas targets, and Kern’s calculations have raised questions about whether Valley COGs are meeting the targets via ambitious policies or modeling assumptions. To finalize this first round of SCSes and implement them to their full potential, continued effort will be essential in these key areas:

More transparent and comprehensible targets calculations. Many questions remain about the San Joaquin Valley’s target calculations. As ARB reviews Valley plans and contemplates an update to the GHG targets, we need to make sure that ALL Valley counties are meeting the targets through ambitious action on land use and transportation policy.

Frontloading the right investments. These plans include many great investments – but also some less-than-stellar investments as well. We hope the COGs will take advantage of the current momentum to frontload investments that will make their counties healthy, equitable and sustainable.

Owning the land use and transportation connection. Despite great strides, Valley COGs, including Fresno and San Joaquin, remain tentative about acknowledging the strong link between transportation and land use. Of course, local agencies have final authority – but these COGs have a great history of leadership, such as the Valley Greenprint and Blueprint implementation. We hope they will continue this trend via efforts to highlight and support the strong market demand for infill development in communities both urban and rural, and to help local agencies identify strategies to protect natural lands and the Valley’s water and farmland.

More meaningful public engagement. Fresno and San Joaquin COG both deserve great credit for expanding the public dialogue in their own ways. At the same time, each struggled to live up to “best practices” at crucial junctions. In San Joaquin, staff publicly acknowledged that they struggled with planning workshops in a way that drew high attendance. In Fresno, the COG did not leave themselves time to fully integrate public comments on the policy element, leading Supervisor Perea to direct staff to meet with advocates about the issues raised. Moving forward, an essential step will be to include advocates representing a broad range of community issues on the implementation committees.

As each of the Valley counties move towards implementation, we hope they can learn from one another and work together to spread the best practices that are emerging. Similarly, ClimatePlan is committed to ensuring that local advocates across the San Joaquin Valley have the tools, support and opportunities they need to work together and hold these agencies accountable. Working together, local agencies and advocates can keep the momentum going toward a more healthy, equitable, and sustainable San Joaquin Valley!

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