November Voter Initiative to Protect Santa Clara County against Sprawl
by Brian Schmidt
Santa Clara County showed great foresight thirty years ago when it decided that intense development belonged in cities, not in unincorporated areas. Absent that decision, our landscape would resemble parts of Alameda County and Southern California that are blanketed with sprawling suburbs and mini-cities. Ten years ago, the County revised its General Plan to eliminate the threat of extremely small subdivisions in the hillsides, establishing another protection against sprawl.
The General Plan Initiative provisions
While the County has increased some environmental protections over the years, it has also repeatedly slashed the planning budget and enforcement staff. And even more worrisome the current General Plan protections are vulnerable to override by a vote of three County Supervisors. A coalition of environmental groups, called People for Land and Nature, or PLAN, now hopes to take the next step in protecting against sprawl by "locking in" voter protections for the General Plan and establishing additional protections for unincorporated areas designated Hillsides, Ranchlands, and Large-scale Agriculture.
Besides the Committee for Green Foothills and other major environmental groups, many prominent individuals, including landowners, have been involved in the early stages of developing the Initiative to amend Santa Clara County's General Plan.
The County General Plan places limits on the ability to subdivide large parcels of land into ever-smaller divisions. In Hillside designated land, the minimum parcel size is 160 acres, but the current Plan has a big loophole. If a landowner "clusters" residences in a subdivision close to each other, the minimum parcel size can be as small as 20 acres, depending on the parcel's steepness.
While clustering is thought to be good for the environment, allowing 8 times as many residences is too much. The Initiative still gives a large reward for clustering, but with a minimum parcel size of 40 acres, not 20, to help preserve the relatively-undeveloped character of Hillsides.
The Plan's designated Ranchlands are supposed to be economically-compatible with cattle ranching, something that requires a lot of land. A single cow-calf pair can require 20 to 30 acres of land to graze on. Yet the current Plan allows Ranchland subdivisions as small as 20 acres based on the Hillside slope formula. The Initiative gets rid of this allowance and leaves the minimum parcel size at 160 acres. Even this might be too small for ranching, but it makes it easier for a rancher to arrange to graze a small number of larger parcels jointly, rather than trying to obtain grazing rights for dozens of postage-stamp-sized properties.
Agricultural land protections
County areas designated "Agriculture" are a difficult case. Most of the County's remaining flatland farms are either within city limits, proposed for annexation by cities, or already divided into many small parcels. The Initiative maintains the Large-Scale Agriculture designation for areas south and east of Gilroy the County's farmland stronghold by establishing voter-protection for the existing 40-acre minimum parcel size to help keep that area as productive farmland.
Protecting the County's rural character
The Initiative takes other steps to help protect the County. It keeps buildings off ridgelines where possible, creates development envelopes to keep construction concentrated, and provides wildlife and stream protection. The Initiative creates maximum construction limits that can be increased to allow appropriate rural needs, like barns and farm worker housing. The Initiative spells out which business activities are compatible with these rural areas, to avoid creeping urbanization. Finally, the Initiative allows citizens to enforce its terms, to help manage the problem of illegal construction and non-enforcement that resulted from slashed County budgets.
The road ahead
The County's General Plan and the new Initiative don't affect areas under city jurisdiction - where each city's individual General Plan must guide development in that city. Also "grandfathered" into the Initiative is all development that has already happened. The Initiative is not trying to revisit past decisions, but instead is directed toward helping to shape better future decisions.
What isn't yet clear is how much opposition to the Initiative will surface. Many developers will be either uninterested or even welcome it, as they know that the real money lies in development within city boundaries. However, a few developers may look at our County and see an opportunity to create a "North Los Angeles," with houses and mansions covering all the hillsides, and businesspeople using jetpacks to fly back and forth to their offices (highways will be jammed with people commuting in from California's Central Valley). These developers might fight us, and try to rope in as many people as possible with a siren song called "property rights."
The Initiative is designed to prevent this nightmare from happening here. By strengthening wise land use protections for hillsides, ranchlands and agricultural lands, the Initiative will help ensure that our rural landscape will continue to look much like it does today.
The PLAN Initiative will need our help over the coming months, and Committee for Green Foothills will be engaged in that process. We hope you will too. For more information on the PLAN initiative: www.openspace2006.org.
Published April 2006 in Green Footnotes.
Page last updated September 13, 2010.