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Mayors say ag plan still in works
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A plan to preserve agricultural land in the county, driven by the Stanislaus County Mayors' Group, isn't intended to be a unilateral matter - and isn't anywhere near finished, say the county's mayors.

That comes as news to planning commissions and city councils across the county, many of which responded with shock when a map of planned city growth boundaries was released last month with the mayors asking each city to approve the map.

"I'm not saying it's perfect, I'm not saying this is what we're going to end up with, but it's a beginning," said Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour. "... We've got to get everybody involved on this."

The plan looks to establish firm boundaries around each city, which no city may grow past before the year 2050. By restricting cities' growth, the mayors hoped to preserve the vast amounts of farmland which make up rural Stanislaus County.

To make the plan mutually agreeable to all cities, each mayor was allowed to draw their own 2050 boundaries on the rough draft map. But cities approached the process differently, some claiming small growth areas to preserve ag land while others - like Oakdale, which could triple in size per the plan - engaged what other mayors termed a land grab.

To Denny Jackman, a founding member of the Farmland Working Group and a former Modesto City Council member who supported a moratorium on new housing, that made the policy sound less like ag preservation and more like fiscal assurance, guaranteeing cities the ability to grow as they please.

"I applaud the process, but you're going to get a lot of resistance because of the maps," Jackman said.

The mayors' boundaries were meant only as a rough draft, Ridenour said. Cities were expected to then go out to the public, receive feedback, and update those maps before approving them.

Confusion may have stemmed from a December deadline pushed by the mayors to meet a Stanislaus County Local Agency Formation Commission request. LAFCO, which initially sought to draft an ag mitigation policy of its own, asked for an update on the mayors' efforts by its Dec. 7 meeting. By showing some progress, the mayors hoped to avoid an ag mitigation plan, which they say would save less ag land - by preserving an acre of ag land for each acre developed, it would save 50 percent at best - and would also be more costly to developers.

"It pushed the mayors to get people involved, to put a map out there, whether you like it or don't like it," Ridenour said. "... It's very clear that every city has got to defend what they've got on that map."

The mayors admitted that they may not have done a great job communicating the process initially, but emphasized there is still time to make the plan right.

But even with more time, some cities are not sure how to proceed. Oakdale, in the midst of updating its General Plan, which will guide the city's growth for the next 20 years, is unwilling to draw boundaries until its General Plan Update is complete.

The Ceres Planning Commission voted 4-1 on Oct. 3 to set a boundary that calls for Ceres to draw a line at Carpenter Road to the west, to Keyes Road to the south (west of Highway 99) and to within a quarter-mile of Washington Road on the east.

The boundary scenario only would result in a 1.75-mile ag buffer zone between Ceres and Hughson, which is mulling a far reaching western boundary line.

Supervisor Jim DeMartini criticized the size of the Ceres boundary line, calling it a "massive expansion of the city although not as bad as some I've seen." Currently Ceres city limits occupy 5,000 acres of city limits and the new boundaries encompass 13,300 acres.

Making matters worse, said Jeani Ferrari, a founding member of the Stanislaus Farmland Trust, and board member of the Farmland Working Group, soils maps, water recharge maps, and irrigation maps have not played into the boundary drawing process.

"What the mayors are doing is just a joke," Ferrari said. "...we need to do what we've always done and grow on poorer soils and not look at a map from outer space."

Ultimately, whatever plan results from the process will likely end up before voters for approval. The timing of that vote - which may require lengthy environmental review - is still undecided, as is whether the vote would encompass the entire county or would be city-by-city.

"We need all the input we can get, and it's going to take the citizen's input on this, and it's going to take their vote on it eventually," Ridenour said,