A Winters Express opinion column
By Richard Casavecchia
Special to the Express
One year ago, 75 percent of Winters voters passed the most significant change to development that our town has ever seen. A signature campaign for a voter initiative led to months of simmering tension, culminating in a seven-hour meeting at the firehouse, complete with COVID masks, social distancing, speeches, more public comment than has ever been given in Winters in a single night, yelling on both sides, and the intervention of legal counsel.
Weeks later, an accord was reached, the initiative was scrapped, and Measure A was placed on the ballot to be voted on, side by side with Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
But a full year after Measure A passed, there has been no movement. The law was changed, no action was taken.
The way I see it, there are two strategies for Measure A. The first, and the one the city seems to be taking perhaps unintentionally, is to do nothing until it is necessary. Measure A becomes yet another bureaucratic hurdle to development and by taking no action growth is slowed considerably. Some people may like this, but first mover advantage is lost.
The second strategy is to use Measure A proactively, a tool to shape future development now. This is how I think it should be used.
Growth is like Thanos, it is inevitable. With Measure A, the residents, partnered with the city, business owners, and two external stakeholders to be approved jointly by the Measure A proponents and City Council, can steer the conversation on what will be allowed in the North Area.
Most development is the result of a developer purchasing large parcels of property and submitting a plan for what they would like to do that generally conforms to the zoning. With Measure A, we have a tool for direct resident input to shape the conversation before it begins.
A seated specific plan committee can draft what we the people would like to see happen in the North Area.
Do we want custom homes or high-density apartments? Both? Something in-between?
How much open space do we want? Do we want an intricate park system with trails and ponds interspersed between the homes?
Do we want quiet, sleepy neighborhoods with narrow streets, or wide parkways with tract homes on either side? What about a shallow Venetian style canal system connected to the county canals to help facilitate groundwater recharge of the water supply for the city and surrounding farms?
Maybe we want an Italian-style piazza community with mixed-use buildings and a central square with restaurants where kids can play and people congregate in “Piazza di a Nord Winters?” Or a Spanish-influenced equivalent “Plaza de Winters del Norte” to stay on brand with local wine styles?
What kind of commercial space do we want? What types of companies and job opportunities do we want to attempt to attract?
All of this thinking has typically been done by the developers, City Council and Planning Commission largely out of view of residents and due to apathy on our part, with limited exception. One year ago, 75 percent of voters expressed their dissatisfaction with that process and created a new one.
Growth in Winters has been reactionary in how it has been implemented. We had a proactive plan, but as we said in the Army, no plan survives first contact. The housing market crashed and developers disappeared. We failed to proactively update the plan and it became reactive in what seems like a scramble to meet the regional housing requirements we missed during the market downturn.
Developments submitted eight to 10 years ago are just now coming to fruition, too far in the planning process to make significant adjustments.
We haven’t driven the process so much as largely accepted what developers pitched, with minor changes. A tweak of the frontage here, adjustment to the setback there, some input on paint color and shutter design, a splash of greenery, and voila a new neighborhood. Neighbors to Walnut 10 couldn’t even get them to line up lot lines behind existing homes. Measure A represents an opportunity to change that relationship if we want.
There is one primary landowner in the North Area, Mr. Greg Hostetler. I have no idea if he plans to be the developer and build homes for sale himself, or if he will seek a housing overlay and then sell off sections of his land to other developers. He should be one of the external stakeholders on the specific plan committee, which could make for some interesting collisions of priorities if his desires differ from the residents. But involving the guy whose land is affected just makes sense.
Better to be part of the solution than creating a problem.
At some point this will cost money, but getting people in the community together to start talking about and documenting what they would like to happen is free. So is outlining the ideas, or reviewing current or past specific plans and beginning to plug in what we want to the framework they provide. The only expense is the sunk cost of staff time. But until we are ready, I see no reason to hire extra people to dot the T’s and cross the I’s.
What did happen with Measure A? Everything, and nothing. It is time we changed that.