News-Sentinel readers overwhelmingly favor a greenbelt between Lodi and Stockton, and they think developer fees should pay for it.
They strongly believe the greenbelt should grow from the collective efforts of political leaders, farmers, developers and environmentalists.
Even so, they are less sure about whether new taxes should be adopted for open space.
In a special three-day series that ran Nov. 15, 17 and 18, the News-Sentinel examined how the preservation of open space could be accomplished, pointed out the challenges, and highlighted the opportunities available.
At the end, the newspaper asked residents to provide their opinions. In what Editor Richard Hanner called an "unprecedented response," more than 160 surveys were sent back to the newsroom. It is the strongest reader reaction in years, he said.
According to the survey results, there is not a strong opinion that area political local leaders will take the lead. In fact, it's almost split 50-50 of those responders who strongly agree that will happen and those who strongly disagree. Instead, they said, local citizens will lead.
Some 76 percent feel politicians, farmers and developers will work together.
"I'm not at all surprised by the response," said Konradt Bartlam, Lodi's community development director.
"I'm disappointed by the quantity. I hoped it would be more. For the most part, people are apathetic."
Overall, he felt the articles were well done and offered a variety of viewpoints. He received six phone calls, e-mails and letters regarding the series.
"I didn't get an overwhelming response myself. I hoped there would have been more call for action," Bartlam said.
Besides filling out the survey, many readers wrote detailed comments on the issue of open space.
David Browda feels strongly that agricultural zoning should be protected - and developer fees for open space or agricultural conservation easements should be adopted.
"You should call land developers what they are: land destroyers," he wrote.
"The land in question is wonderful farmland and open space. Homes should be built on poor lousy land; land unfit for farming or grazing. The reasons are obvious."
There are options: Some communities have embraced agricultural easements to protect farmland, while others have adopted urban growth limits that draw a line in a the sand for future growth.
Still, using taxes or building fees for the purchase of open space has worked elsewhere, and the idea has been suggested of requiring an acre of open space to be set aside for every acre to be developed. And, sticking steadfastly to agricultural zones in an area of development pressures is yet another consideration.
Lodi Mayor Susan Hitchcock, who has remained an optimist since formal discussions began in 1999, said this week the newspaper's response doesn't surprise her.
"People don't want the Valley to look like San Jose or Los Angeles. People are realizing it's a critical time," she said. "We need to just forge ahead."
Hitchcock wants to form a greenbelt task force with representatives from the public and a planning commissioner. It is scheduled to be discussed at Wednesday's regular meeting.
In the past, she has called for Lodi city staff to continue studying options to create some sort of buffer between Lodi and Stockton - even if Lodi is the only interested city. In fact, she wants to see it as a part of Lodi's general plan.
Eighty-seven percent of responders want a growth boundary drawn around Lodi, according to the newspaper survey.
Readers Tasso and Gertie Kandris favor the lead taken by developers G-REM in setting aside land for a buffer in exchange for commercial property in Lodi.
They termed it "forward-looking and highly commendable," and urged the city of Stockton, the city of Lodi and San Joaquin County to adopt an ordinance to require this developer action.
Supervisor Jack Sieglock, who represents the Lodi area, said a land-swap mandate wouldn't necessarily affect land between the two cities.
"Developing that ordinance would pay for mitigations, but it doesn't necessary mean that the greenbelt would happen between Lodi and Stockton."
The Lodi City Council declined to make the land-swap mandatory, concerned it would set a precedence for future development.
Dean Plassaras, spokesman for A.G. Spanos, said while developers simply transform land into what economists term the "highest and best" use, those that own the land have the biggest stake.
"Farmers who control the vast majority of space between the two cities will be less likely to sell their holdings to any entity (whether city, government, developer or otherwise) at a price commensurate with the intent to preserve the property as perpetual farmland," Plassaras said.
"Therefore, I believe that the first serious obstacle in the formation of a greenbelt, is that one would find very few willing sellers (mostly farmers) knowing that the very act of sale will diminish the value of their holdings and will interfere with their property rights."
Talks of creating a buffer between Lodi and Stockton started as early as 1981, when Lodi voters approved Measure A, making it a mandatory vote of the people before property outside the city limits could be annexed (it was ruled unconstitutional in 1989). Those talks prompted formal discussions and even a greenbelt study paid for by the two cities and San Joaquin County.
That effort fizzled earlier this year when the Board of Supervisors voted against spending more money to move forward, following the lead of the Stockton City Council whose members also voted no on additional funds.
Sieglock is holding out for the ag mitigation fee program where new home buyers would be asked to pay fees to keep space open. It is currently being reviewed by the county's agricultural advisory committee.
One of the issues supervisors will have to debate, however, is whether its fair for developers to pay twice for the same land, Sieglock said. Currently, they are asked to contribute to the county's habitat preservation program.
"Fees are being looked at," he said.
"Should they be paid for by the developer or by society? That is the big question. Maybe it should be a combination of both.
"As Stockton and Lodi grow more, the debate will grow louder and may be debated more. Again, when we held the meetings no one showed up."
In the end, reader Kyle Herbold feels any city's drive toward creating a greenbelt must be steered by its residents. He doesn't see local political leaders taking the lead.
"It is important to remember that only the residents of a city can determine where it will grow," he wrote.