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Other Voices: Guiding the future – the general plan

Joe Heckel

Change is constant. Our society grows and evolves every day; such changes may be subtle, but they occur. From the time in 1849 when a party of immigrants found their stray cattle by a grassy meadow near Wolf Creek and the town of Grass Valley was born, to present day, past and present generations have witnessed an evolving landscape.

What caused Grass Valley to evolve to its present shape, form and function? Industries centered in mining, timber, commerce and technology served to shape our economic base. Immigrants attracted by jobs, land or adventure brought their preferences for goods, services, architecture and cuisine (pasties, anyone?).

Modes of transportation, such as the Narrow Gauge Railroad, electric trains and the automobile, further influenced where our homes, businesses and jobs would locate. A network of utilities such as electricity, telephone, water and sewer were built to raise our standard of living.

Change is still occurring, but the process for how citizens participate in shaping the future of their community is definitely different than in 1849.

The process for evaluating and effecting land-use decisions in Grass Valley changed in 1966 when the city adopted its first general plan. Though lacking in precise detail, the city’s first general plan delineated land-use categories, general types of development and future roads. In this sense, it became the first blueprint for guiding community growth.

Today, the state of California requires every community to have a general plan. The plan serves as a guide to government, private enterprise, community groups, and individuals for making certain decisions.

A general plan must contain seven state-mandated elements (land use, open space, conservation, housing, circulation, noise and safety). These seven elements work individually and collectively to define a general standard for development (i.e. what type of parks should we have and where?).

The city’s current general plan goes beyond the state requirement by including three more elements – recreation, historical resources and community design. Each element has a set of goals, objectives and policies, tailored to address the needs of each community. For example, if a city determines there is a need to stimulate the local economy and create jobs, policies are added to the general plan to facilitate this goal.

As a long-term planning document, the general plan is designed to be broad in nature. The general plan sets the foundation or the beginning point in the development process. Its network of goals and policies set a backdrop of expectations for what is desired for a particular property (i.e. land use, density, streets, and resource protection).

Other documents adopted by the city work to implement the goals of the general plan and lay the groundwork for how a project is designed from the ground up. For example, the city’s development code, community design guidelines and building codes contain an array of specific standards for how a development project will be designed and built. If a project does not meet the foundational requirements laid out in these planning documents, it may be rejected.

A successful general plan needs the flexibility to respond to current trends and issues, so it is in essence a living document. Given the broad scope of the general plan, inherent tensions exist between its objectives and policies that must be balanced against one another when making a land use decision. For example, does the city offer flexibility on the land use mix of a project in exchange for building a new community park? The intent of the general plan is not to predetermine these decisions, but to shape and guide the decision-making process.

The state allows a community to amend its general plan up to four times a year as a way to address changing conditions, individual requests or impacts from a natural disaster or economic downturn that weren’t known or evaluated at the time the Plan was adopted.

The city has approved five amendments to the general plan since 1999. For example, the findings were made through the public process that supported two amendments leading to the construction of the Wolf Creek Co-Housing Project and the BriarPatch Market.

After 1966, the city adopted “new” general plans in 1972, 1982 and 1999. The life span of our current general plan extends from 1999 to 2020 and was approved after a series of community meetings and public hearings. The public outreach effort included a steering committee which represented a broad base of community interests.

The 1999 plan provides for a more compact community and less growth and development than the previous plans.

In measuring how our general plan has managed growth and change since 1999, the city is below its projections for housing and population that were anticipated. Over the last three years, the population gain has been slow, with the city adding 24 residents, bringing our current population to just under 13,000. The city added 673 new housing units since 1999 or 84 units a year. The general plan projected that the city would add about 2,820 new residential units by 2020 or about 141 units a year.

This slower pace of growth can be attributed to the economic downturn and the city’s deliberative public process in reviewing development proposals within its city limits and its sphere of influence. When an annexation or development proposal is submitted to the city, a public review process is triggered. There is an opportunity for the public to review and comment on such items as its environmental impacts, consistency with city planning policies and design.

Did the first immigrants have a vision for a future community named “Grass Valley” as they chased their cattle by Wolf Creek? Probably not, but their efforts jump-started a special community. The contributions of our past and present generations need to be respected as we address the future.

A general plan can serve to bridge the gap between the past and future by recognizing our historical past and allowing current and future residents a voice in our future.

If you wish to view or obtain a copy of the 2020 General Plan, it is available on the city’s website at http://www.cityofgrassvalley.com or at City Hall, 125 E. Main Street.

Joe C. Heckel is the community development director for the city of Grass Valley.


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