Citizens get hands-on planning

By Carolyn Barbre

What are the top three issues facing Tulare County today?

What will be the three most important issues facing Tulare County in 2025?

What are Tulare County's three most important assets?

Those were the questions citizens who attended the General Plan Update community workshop held at the Lindsay Memorial Building on Wednesday, Nov. 5 were asked to answer.

Participants included pro- growth exponents like Porterville City Planner Randy Rouda who said, "As long as our population keeps growing - and there is no indication it is slowing down - we are going to urbanize." He said they are building about 200 homes a year to house another thousand residents. Porterville's population he estimated at 40-50 thousand but their current planning is gauged for a population of 60-70 thousand.

And there were the no-growth or very controlled slow- growth proponents like John and Dagney Grant of Battle Mountain Ranch in Springville, who have already helped set into motion such plans for their unincorporated area. It was generally agreed that most assets are in the low density population areas. "The demands of the incorporated areas fall to us hillbillies in the unincorporated regions," John Grant said.

Bruce Race, part of the consultant team conducting the workshop, headed up the meetings. He said, "That's the tension we're feeling throughout the Central Valley." Race founded RACESTUDIO in Berkeley which specializes in community-based urban design and guidelines, comprehensive planning, programming, and architectural design assignments.

Then there were the middle-of-the-roaders like Cathy Capone, who teaches at Olive Street School in Porterville and is a native plant specialist. The Capones also operate a native plant nursery and Cathy is president of the Tule River Parkway Association, which is the new walking/jogging trail in Porterville. She was able to support her own concerns, like native plants, without seeming to take sides on pro-growth or no-growth. She does such things as giving a docent led walking tours on the parkway quarterly, pointing out native plants and telling of their uses.

Race said there is a plan done about every 10-15 years. He said it was important to look around the room and see who wasn't there and who should be.

It would be easier to say who was there - predominantly white, well educated, older citizens from a variety of occupations who were more likely to be meeting payrolls, or in white collar government jobs, than working for an hourly wage.

Race said the process began with a day-long bus tour of Tulare County which he described as "extremely diverse geographically, economically and culturally." He said some of the initial observations were that urban separators between communities like Visalia and Tulare were slipping away. He said planning issues included urban and land use patterns, county vs. city, county retail developement at city edges and balancing urbanization with economic development in the county.

"I'm the team architect, so I focus on scenic Tulare County," he said. Race said Highway 99 needs design guidelines, cluster uses and design review. "Image has social and cultural issues," Race said. He said heritage preservation was an issue and one of those was agricultural heritage. He brushed over different types of industry including the future mining of sand and gravel and the future of the tourism industry at the county level.

"This is one of the most important agricultural places on the planet." Race said it was necessary to think long term, over multiple generations. "How do we interface growth in our cities and ag land?"

He ticked off other issues including environmental, transportation, social impacts and the need to find ways to increase revenues to support services in smaller communities.

Next, participants were made into teams and the teams had to answer the three questions, writing them on a chart with colored markers. Then they had to draw indications of which areas of the county would be affected on large maps. When that was done everyone was told to indicate on the map what they considered the most scenic place in the county and say if it was at risk, and if so, why.

Six teams set to work, much like they were participating in an exciting classroom activity, which, in a way, it was.

In fact county representatives, including District 1 Supervisor Bill Sanders and Tulare County Project Manager for Planning George Phinney, circled around, much like professors might, observing the work in progress and commenting on the county's future.

"This is what's neat about planning," said Phinney. "Working on issues and looking at the future is really exciting." He said agriculture along the coast in Los Angeles and the Bay Area is no longer viable. While in the Valley he said there are some extreme pressures being placed on olives and citrus - global pressure. He said agriculture should be viewed as a resource. "Ag land is like money you have in the bank. And how you choose to spend it can have very long term consequences to the health of the county," he said.

The teams had completed their assignments and were called up to the microphone one-by-one, to share their answers to the questions.

Team 1 said the three most pressing issues were saving agriculture, the water supply and figuring out how to upgrade the workforce. In 2025 they said there would be viable ag land and great transportation, but "L.A. would have all our water." They saw the county's assets as its small towns, mountains and people.

Team 2 saw the most pressing issues as environmental cleanup of air, soil and water, the water supply, and population growth. They said these same things would be issues in 2025: management of over-population, water supply and quality, and clean air. Team 2 said the county's assets are open space, ag production and recreational opportunities.

There were variations on these answers but all six teams had similar concerns. Another immediate issue was infrastructure. One team had transportation as a concern, and on their map they had drawn a railroad to solve that problem, with connecting operations up into the foothills.

What was particularly interesting was how many people named their favorite places to be in the foothills, many more than were from the foothills. Where the valley meets the mountains was highly regarded for its scenic beauty, but there was great concern about the danger from fire and air pollution which can kill trees. A man on team 4, who was from Visalia, added that air quality is a problem for the scenic foothills, "because it's not really scenic if you can't see it."

Team 5 said the most pressing issues are a) water, b) water, and c) the quality of life. One member said, "Water comes out of the hills. You need to think real serious about controlling water that is yours to control."

When all the ideas were in, Jann McGuire, a retired teacher from Lindsay said, "When you get all the good ideas out, are you going to talk about what's blocking it, because we've had these good ideas for 20 years but there is always something blocking it."

Seated beside her, Jim Winton of Springville said, "To implement any plan there has to be action taken. You can adopt a plan, but individual projects will implement a plan.

Race told everyone to check the county Web site for the next steps. He said the next workshops should be in February or March 2004. He advised thinking of the county as a game board. "You world renowned planners will be figuring out key features for concepts in the general plan," he said.

Additional suggestions were to have a citizen's advisory committee. Allen Ishida said there needed to be more representation from unincorporated areas. Phinney argued that most of the representatives on the planning commission already are from unincorporated areas. There was a suggestion for more effective use of media. Someone said county supervisors should appoint people to the advisory committee.

"I'm opposed to incorporated cities being included. We are the county," said someone from an unincorporated area. "Like we don't live in the county," said another person from Lindsay. It had come full circle, back to urban vs. rural.

Finally someone asked if a vote could be taken.

"I wouldn't normally recommend that," said Race.

Bill Sanders stepped up to the microphone. "I live in Lindsay and have for 40 years," he said. He said there were some people present who had lived in Lindsay all their lives, and generations back.

"Your input is very important but very preliminary," he said. "The things we value and love and want to protect about our communities," Sanders said, would not be excluded because everyone who stayed involved would continue to have their voice counted. He said it would take two to three years to get a final amendment of the plan.

"You will have a vote all the way through the process before it gets to the Board of Supervisors," Sanders said.

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