COMMENTARY: Why Our Local Residential Development Models Don’t Work

Hollister and San Benito County’s residential development models have a fatal flaw – they end up being feast or famine. But they can be fixed

Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez recently expressed his concern about the potential community impacts of the accelerated residential development including county projects close to the city; he was right to do so because the real impacts are to yet come.  

It was not long ago that nothing was being built at all; now they are building everywhere. That short description defines the problem – our present residential development planning process results in feast or famine. Both are unacceptable.

Staggering from moratoriums or slowdowns to laissez-faire and back again is exactly the wrong answer; we are always behind the proverbial power curve and overcorrecting.  It’s like drinking wine, a little every day is fine, but going without for a month and then trying to take 30 glasses of even the finest product all at once is going to be a real problem. The right answer is to design a residential development program and adopt policies that shorten and lead time and smooth the output so it can be managed more effectively.

Since city and county residential developments impact each other and both entities, the county suffers from the same problem. To fix it the two entities need to adopt similar planning processes.

The first step is to understand the timing and length of each step of the development process, including built-in holding points for classes of developments by size, type and location. The longer the process takes and the more developer determined holding points that are allowed the less control we have.

The best deal for a developer is to make a tiny investment that locks in an allocation forever to be used at their discretion; however, that is the worst deal for us. It means that during periods of low or no demand the allocations simply pile up. Then, when the demand ramps up, the flood gates open. No public entity can effectively plan infrastructure for that scenario.

The best deal for public entities is to get all the investment upfront and then dole out the allocations evenly over a long period of time so they can control the impacts ignoring the demand gyrations completely. The downside is that no private developer can afford to do that or to totally ignore the demand curve for their product.

The workable compromise consists of several steps. The public entity has to initially define its priorities, not all proposals are created equal.  Some of the inputs would be the General Plan, location, size, type, economic and other impacts and some will surely be political.  Then they devise a relative project evaluation system based those priorities.

Next, the system establishes a series of “gates” in the development process with two objectives.  One is to speed the reaction time – the more nimble the process the more control we have because we can react quickly to throttle the system up or down as required. The second objective is to smooth the development impacts by use of controllable packets.

The same types of “gates” can be used to control project releases or phase releases of large projects so they do not eat up all the demand curve.

This type of system will require a lot of hard work behind the scenes because it is not exciting, and it will certainly need fine tuning as we go along. The only alternative is to live with the current feast or famine model and we know from experience that the outcome is poor. 

This solution is neither pro- nor anti-development, it is an attempt to get control of the current chaotic process.        

Marty Richman

Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Marty (Martin G.) spent his teen years in northern New Jersey. He served more than 22 years on active military duty, mostly in Europe, and is a retired U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 4, Nuclear Weapons Technical Officer. Marty then worked 25 years in various engineering and management positions in the electronics and energetic materials industries supporting the communications, computer, aerospace, defense and automotive sectors. He is a graduate, summa cum laude, from The College of Hard Knocks, among his numerous awards and accomplishments. He was a regular weekly Op/Ed columnist and feature writer for The Hollister Free Lance for seven years and a member of its editorial board for five years. Marty is a frequent commentator and contributor to BenitoLink on a wide variety of local, state, national and international subjects.   Marty was elected to represent the City of Hollister District 4 on the City Council in November, 2018. Marty and his wife, Joyce, have been residents of Hollister since 1996.