Promoting Smart Growth

"Once and for all, it's time to draw the line...where San Jose's pavement ends and where the greenbelt and hillsides begin." So proclaimed City of San Jose Mayor Susan Hammer upon initiating a proposal in 1995 for a long-term Urban Growth Boundary, or UGB, for the City of San Jose. The mayor's actions served as a capstone to two decades of evolution in urban growth management policy for the cities and the County of Santa Clara, California.

Santa Clara County -- better known as "Silicon Valley" -- is widely recognized as a worldwide leader in high technology. It is also, however, a national leader in voluntary city/county cooperation on urban growth management.

The history of this cooperation stretches back more than two decades to a landmark agreement between city and county leaders concerning their relative roles and responsibilities for planning and providing services to urban development. This continuing agreement on countywide urban development policies is based on two core principles:

Urban development should occur only within cities (i.e., on lands annexed to cities); and

Cities should plan for orderly, efficient urban development and should allow urban development only within explicit, formally adopted urban service area (USA) boundaries.

The agreements and policies forged in the 1970s helped put an end to annexation wars and competition among cities, and stemmed urban sprawl that extended urban infrastructure and services through prime farmlands to serve scattered, outlying subdivisions. This inefficient practice also made farming of intervening lands more difficult. The cooperative growth management policies, now the foundation of each jurisdiction's General Plan, have provided each city with the stability needed to meet new challenges and cooperate on regional issues that transcend city boundaries.

Defining Areas for Short-Term Growth

The most significant tool for implementing countywide urban development policies has been the delineation and adoption of formal urban service area (USA) boundaries by each of the county's 15 cities. Essentially, these areas include the city's existing urban area plus additional lands appropriate for urban development for which the city is willing and able to provide urban services and facilities within the next five years.

USAs are not permanent; they can be changed annually. Approval for the proposed amendments must be obtained from the county's Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), a state-mandated local commission with authority over such things as annexations to cities and incorporation of new cities. LAFCO's membership is composed of two local city members, two members of the county board of supervisors, and a fifth member from the public at large, appointed by the other four.

The county has taken several key actions to reinforce policies ensuring that urban development takes place only within cities' urban service areas. Foremost among these actions has been to designate in the county's general plan that all lands outside USAs may be devoted only to nonurban uses or very low densities of development. The county encourages annexation of residual unincorporated lands within city urban service areas, and defers to the cities' general plans to determine allowable uses if annexation is not currently possible.

Benefits of Urban Service Areas

Adoption of explicit urban service area boundaries has benefited Santa Clara County's cities and their residents in a number of ways:

It has minimized municipal infrastructure and service costs by directing development toward areas already served by existing infrastructure and services.

It has given cities greater control over the timing and location of urban development.

It has revitalized existing urban areas by encouraging in-fill and private redevelopment of vacant and underused lands within each urban area.

It has directed development away from hazardous sites, environmentally sensitive areas, and important open spaces.

To supplement the existing short-term (five-year) urban service boundaries, Santa Clara County and its cities have been actively working to delineate long-term urban growth boundaries (UGBs) over the next 20 years. In addition to the benefits provided by short-term USAs, long-term UGBs provide the additional benefits of:

Reserving lands needed for future urban development;

Reinforcing city policies to pursue "compact development;" and

Providing farmers and other rural land owners with a more realistic basis for assessing future land use options.

Success in Voluntary Joint Planning

Over the past several years, the county and eight of its cities have worked cooperatively on long-term UGB projects. To date, these have resulted in final adoption of UGBs by five cities. San Jose, the county's largest city, adopted a long-term UGB in 1997 to implement its Greenline Initiative. However, the adoption was overturned by a lawsuit challenging the adequacy of its environmental assessment process. The city is currently preparing an environmental impact report in anticipation of bringing its UGB back for readoption. When it does, given its population of nearly 900,000, San Jose is likely to become the largest city in the United States with a long-term urban growth boundary.

Through pioneering efforts to delineate urban service area boundaries and, more recently, long-term urban growth boundaries, Santa Clara County and its cities are demonstrating that cities and counties can work cooperatively and voluntarily on critical issues, such as growth management, in pursuit of sustainable urban communities.

For further information, contact:
Bill Shue
Santa Clara County Department of Planning and Development
408-299-2521, extension 231

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The United States Conference of Mayors

J. Thomas Cochran, Executive Director
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