Will Cities Like Stockton Fall Back Into Boom and Bust Growth?

Stockton, California, was one of the bigger cities in a wave of recent municipal bankruptcies brought on, in part, when the cycle of never-ending, sprawling growth went bust.

Will Stockton fall into bad, old habits? Photo: Stockton City Limits
Will Stockton fall back into old habits? Photo: Stockton City Limits

But now that the bankruptcy has run its course and the economy is on the mend, Jon Mendelson at Stockton City Limits wonders whether the same old mentality will reassert itself in Stockton. Right now, developers are expressing a revived interest in the area’s undeveloped farmland, Mendelson reports:

Though the City Council and city planners embraced the imperative for a more sustainable, less sprawl-filled future during the city’s time in bankruptcy, there seems to be little urgency now that we’re on the other side.

A revision of the 2007 general plan mandated by a 2009 legal settlement with the state attorney general’s office and Sierra Club remains unfinished. Stockton’s to-be-updated blueprint for growth is languishing somewhere in City Hall’s bureaucracy.

In 2004, Stocktonians passed two different measures purporting to protect agricultural land from residential development. But one of the two was actually a Trojan horse put forward by development interests. While both initiatives were approved, the one drafted on behalf of developers won significantly more votes, and a clause in pro-developer law’s language torpedoed the more meaningful measure backed by local smart growth activists.

Despite that, the sentiment of the voters was clear: There should be limits on the city’s growth, and residents should direct what type of growth occurs and where. That was forgotten by the city leaders who engineered the 2007 general plan, in part because those with skin in the game had the most input regarding the rules, and most residents sat on the sidelines. It led to a document that would have continued a valley-wide plague of paving over productive agricultural land in favor of single-family houses — the same single-minded growth strategy that fostered the housing boom and bust that devastated Stockton.

Thanks to the Sierra Club and then-Attorney General Jerry Brown, Stockton was forced to take another look at its growth priorities. With bankruptcy in the rearview mirror, now is the perfect chance for city leadership, including members of the City Council, to take up the mantle and champion smarter growth. The alternative is a return to business as usual, and letting those with the loudest voices set policy for the rest of the city’s residents.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Second Avenue Sagas says a coming fare hike for New Jersey Transit speaks to the agency’s long-term financial problems. ATL Urbanist compares fare hikes at Atlanta’s MARTA to increases in Georgia gas tax rates over the last few decades. And Better Cities & Towns! gives a snapshot of the development scene in Norman, Oklahoma.

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