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General plan: A guide for city's growth

Posted: October 6, 2008 5:28 p.m.
Updated: December 8, 2008 5:00 a.m.

'One Valley, One Vision' is a guide to growth in Santa Clarita.

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Second story in "The Big Picture," The Signal's series looking at plans for growth in the Santa Clarita Valley. Today, the focus is on general plans and how population projections change. Click here for the rest of the stories.

The city of Santa Clarita penned its first general plan land use map in 1991 as a guide for growth during the next two decades.

It was the product of more than 50 meetings of a 23-member citizens General Plan Advisory Committee that hashed out the details of the plan for more than two years.

The plan labeled itself the "constitution" for development and "the foundation upon which all land-use decisions are to be based."

However, a general plan isn't as permanent as such descriptions make it sound.

Since it was adopted in 1991, the general plan has been changed 30 to 40 times through the process of amending, said Patrick Leclair, city associate planner. Most of the amendments were initiated by developers and/or property owners, he said.

"A developer might say, ‘This is something that I want to acquire, but for me to make my margin, I can't do it at one unit for every two acres,'" said city Senior Planner Jason Smisko.

"‘But at five units an acre, I can make the profit margin I want for me and my investors.' So he would approach the city and say, ‘I'm going to buy this land and do a project ... and I'm going to be requesting a general plan amendment.'"Among the amendments is the city's own downtown Newhall revitalization plan, adopted in 2005, which adds 2,000 more residents to Newhall than originally anticipated.

But the big jumps in population brought to the valley through amendments are due to development outside the city limits, Smisko said.

The 1991 general plan projected 267,000 residents in 98,000 homes. These plans are typically updated every 15 to 20 years, Smisko said.

One Valley, One Vision, a city-county planning document due for approval next summer, projects 445,000 residents in the SCV.

Between 80 and 85 percent of all of the homes in the Santa Clarita Valley were originally approved by the county, including those since annexed into the city, said Santa Clarita Community Development Director Paul Brotzman.

"If you're looking for a lightning bolt of where these population increases are from, look around," Smisko said. "Look at Tesoro, Westridge, look at the NorthLake specific plan. They're all gains in population that I don't think were truly accounted for in 1991."

Smisko said there's a reason why general plans have a shelf life of about 20 years.

"Information changes, trends change, economic forces change, theories and philosophies evolve," Smisko said.

One day planners will update One Valley, One Vision "to reflect what's transpired since this time and how they anticipate 20 years and beyond," Smisko said.

One Valley, One Vision discourages general plan amendments because its population projection is likely more accurate than previous plans', Brotzman said.

(Before the 1991 general plan was a 1977 SCV Area Plan that predates the city.)

"What we're trying to do is come up with a general plan that reflects the long-term development potential so that there does not need to be major amendments to the plan in the future," Brotzman said.

"If we've done our job well and we've identified the nature of the community we believe everybody wants, then the only reason in my mind to do a general plan amendment is if that amendment will bring with it significant community benefits."

A "significant community benefit" would have to go beyond just offsetting negative effects of more development, Brotzman said.

"Just adding more housing and more bodies in the community is not a benefit, but if there were to be significant public facility or infrastructure benefits that would not otherwise happen ... then that becomes an argument for considering a general plan change," he said.

The county Department of Regional Planning is "committed to updating our plans on a more frequent basis" to avoid making general plan amendments, said Mitch Glaser, county supervising regional planner.

Though developers will still be able to request a change to the land use map, planners hope One Valley, One Vision will discourage policy makers from approving such changes, Glaser said.

"I think the plan communicates to decision makers, whether it be five years, 10 years down the road, that there was a lot of thought that went into these designations," Glaser said.

"So if a property owner comes in and asks for a change from a rural to urban designation, there would be policies in the plan that would lead a decision-maker to say that really isn't in the spirit or intent of this plan."

See Wednesday's edition of The Signal for the third story in this series.

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