California's growth-control movement began in an unlikely place called Petaluma, an old river port town nestled against the hills about 50 miles north of San Francisco on U.S. 101.
"Petaluma has never been a picture post card town," admits Walter Salmons, the city's community development and planning director. But a strong desire to keep Petaluma's small-town ambiance, with its Victorian houses, river landings and grain elevators, led city officials to adopt a one-year moratorium on new housing starts in 1971, Salmons says.
This was followed quickly by a City Council resolution in 1972 that limited residential construction to 500 units a year, with exemptions for low-income housing.
In landmark action in 1976, the California Supreme Court declined to review an appellate court ruling that upheld Petaluma's growth limits. Builders had argued unsuccessfully that the growth restrictions were an unconstitutional infringement on people's right to travel and live where they want.
In the 1970s, several communities copied Petaluma's basic approach to limiting growth, including Livermore in Alameda County and Boulder, Colo.
At one point, Petaluma may have been one of the most-studied towns in the western United States.
Academicians say housing prices rose steeply after growth controls were imposed. But today, experts say, it is difficult to determine whether there are any lingering effects on housing prices because almost every community in the area has some type of growth control.
Prices are higher south of Petaluma, in Marin County. They tend to be lower north of the town, according to the Sonoma County Board of Realtors.
Before the growth limits were imposed, city officials projected a population of about 60,000 by 1988; currently, about 39,700 people live in Petaluma.
"We're just fine," says Councilwoman Lynn Woolsey, a growth-limit advocate who has successfully fought several major development projects. "The citizens like what we're doing."
In 1977, however, the atmosphere was a little different. That year, a City Council-sponsored re-evaluation of Petaluma's growth limits led to a relaxation of the rules.
The 500-unit building cap was scrapped in favor of a ceiling of 5% a year on new housing units. That allowed about 700 new housing units a year. Also, a system of awarding points to proposed developments on the basis of how impressed city officials were with elements of the projects' designs was abandoned.
In the early days of the controls, builders never took out all of the residential building permits they could have. Some experts say that is because some developers simply abandoned Petaluma when controls were imposed.
Only in fiscal 1983-84 did builders reach the cap on growth.
Worried about a recent two-year growth spurt, however, the City Council three weeks ago adopted a new general plan that reimposes the 500-unit ceiling on residential construction.
Developers did not fight it, Woolsey says. Instead, they are supporting a countywide initiative this year that would remove surrounding agricultural lands from Petaluma's official county-designated planning area or "sphere of influence" so that building can proceed more easily in unincorporated areas adjacent to the city.
Woolsey and Salmons say several problems have emerged as a result of Petaluma's growth controls:
- Some builders who generally deliver well-designed projects have left town.
- The goal of more construction on the Westside of town--the older section away from the hills overlooking Petaluma--has not been achieved. Only 15% of the city's new housing units have been built there, contrasted with 85% on the newer Eastside. As a result, the city's new General Plan calls for 30% of all future housing units to be built on the Westside.
- Traffic, not a problem when controls were first imposed, now is. Instead of traffic performance standards being added to the growth-limit ordinance, however, they have been written into other parts of the General Plan. The standards require developers to pay for road improvements to offset any new congestion caused by their projects.
However, Woolsey and Salmons agree that the growth management system has prevented much-feared suburban sprawl.
They also say commercial development has expanded so much that unemployment and lack of job growth have never been a problem or a political issue.
Still, real estate broker Robert Ramirez complains that Petaluma's growth limits have cost the city some well-planned new communities with schools and other facilities paid for by developers. Those kinds of larger developments have been going to Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park, just to the north.
"I know of one developer who paid for six lighted baseball diamonds, tennis courts, a swimming pool and a new school (in Rohnert Park)," Ramirez says. "In Petaluma, they're too shortsighted to accept that kind of thing. And as a result, you can't find an open tennis court."