Blithering idiocy stalks north San Joaquin Valley

Modesto Bee
Valley's nine cities begin reviews of growth limits…Garth Stapley
Most city leaders throughout Stanislaus County are consulting their growth policies as logical starting points for drawing the growth limits they hope to put before voters next year.
The notion that people could choose their destinies appeals to those who have argued against paving over a breadbasket for the United States and beyond.
But some controlled-growth advocates are increasingly uneasy with how the landmark initiative is shaping up, saying lines on a map won't mean much if they protect sprawl at historic rates.
"Stanislaus seems on the verge of great things," said Ed Thompson, state director for American Farmland Trust. "They're thinking about the right things. But if the lines assume you're going to sprawl as usual, the question is whether the lines mean anything at all."
Each of the county's nine cities has the job of producing urban growth boundaries beyond which they could not grow before 2050. Voter approval could be sought throughout the county in the summer.
Almost all cities began the dialogue with their respective general plans, documents designed to guide growth in the next decadeor two.
A Bee review of general plans showed that, on average, the cities would more than double in size if those areas are developed. Total urbanized area would triple if added to growth plans for unincorporated towns, which would not be subject to next year's initiative.
Some cities are much more aggressive. Newman, for example, would grow nearly eight times its size under its general plan; Oakdale would balloon more than nine times and would be far larger than Modesto is now.
Patterson and Waterford would nearly triple and Ceres would more than double.
Officials with several cities said general plans are rooted in logic and often are generated with plenty of public input.
"That is the overriding policy document," said J.D. Hightower, Riverbank's development services director. His city's Planning Commission will take up the matter Tuesday.
"We're fine with those boundaries," Hightower said, echoing the approach of most cities. "I don't see us coming close to those boundaries."
Based on status quo?
Denny Jackman, the county's biggest name in controlled growth, refers to maps being circulated as "sprawl assurance plans" based on the status quo.
"They have the audacity to call it ag preservation," he said.
Jackman, a former Modesto councilman, wrote and championed Measure E, a 2008 countywide initiative embraced by voters that directs subdivisions away from farmland. He believes officials are crafting the current measure because he threatened to spend $10,000 promoting growth boundaries if they didn't take action.
Having studied maps emerging from each city, based largely on general plans, Jackman questions whether officials secretly hope the plans are too radical to appeal to voters. Leaders "are just in outer space on this," he said.
Not all, though.
Hughson leaders considered their general plan boundary but recognized that on paper, it could allow that city to abut Ceres. So Hughson City Council members shrank their 2050 vision to the city's sphere of influence, a line beyond the city limit but far shorter than the general plan's limit.
"If you look at the general plan, that's huge," said Mayor Ramon Bawana. "That's miles out there. The sphere of influence is more realistic."
Ceres planning commissioners apparently respected that reasoning and reduced their eastern line by a quarter mile, effectively guaranteeing a healthy swath of farmland between the two cities for at least four decades, if voters agree. The City Council is scheduled to review Ceres' map Oct. 24.
Jackman, past president of the Farmland Working Group, applauded Hughson's rationale, saying spheres of influence would protect far more farmland.
Turlock's general plan update is in progress and more progressive than most in the valley, calling for higher densities. For example, growth areas would require 8.5 units per acre rather than the historic 5.6.
"We are moving in a direction of preserving farmland by encouraging the city to grow in a pattern that results in less consumption of ag land," said Debbie Whitmore, Turlock's deputy planning director.
Mayor draws her own map
Oakdale, however, is considering a map drawn by Mayor Pat Paul that bears little resemblance to that city's general plan. It juts far to the southeast, where officials hope to build the North County Corridor.
"I thought, 'I'll put (limit lines) as far out as I can,' " Paul said, acknowledging "crazy lines" that are "almost absurd."
"I appreciate trying to protect farmland," she said, "and we have got pretty bad soil to the east."
Oakdale City Council members will consider the map Monday.
Newman planning commissioners and the Waterford City Council, both basing maps on their general plans, will review proposals Thursday and Nov. 3, respectively.
Patterson Mayor Luis Molina ran into rough sledding with his council. An item on the consent agenda, typically rubber-stamped without discussion, would have referred the matter to the city's Planning Commission, but his was the only "yes" vote.
"We are his colleagues, not his sidekicks," said Patterson Councilwoman Annette Smith, objecting to the nine mayors collaborating with what she sees as limited input.
Said Molina: "I think some people may have missed the point. I'd like to get feedback from the Planning Commission and public as a whole. It's disappointing the council members didn't want to have that dialogue."
Neither the mayor nor his planning staff seemed to know the next step. Molina said he's waiting for the next meeting of the nine mayors, scheduled for Nov. 9, when all cities are supposed to have formalized proposals.
It's not clear what might happen if a city refuses to propose a growth boundary.
Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour said he hopes Patterson will come around "after they learn more what it's really all about." He says the initiative would guarantee no building on 86,000 acres of farmland outside boundaries, "which is more than anybody has tried to do ever before."
No more 'grow, grow, grow'
Modesto's Planning Commission and the council's economic development committee scheduled a joint meeting Monday to discuss the city's proposal. Its general plan includes Salida, by far the county's largest unincorporated town; Turlock's includes Denair and Keyes.
John Sanders, a Modesto planning commissioner, said people "need to get away from the feeling of grow, grow, grow. More money in the city's coffer is not a good reason to do it. We all know agriculture is the lifeblood of this area."
"I think the populace is beginning to realize something needs to be done," Sanders continued, noting various advisory votes that lined up against sprawl. "People are saying, 'We don't want it.' Well, we'd better have the guts to make some tough decisions."
Thompson, of the American Farmland Trust, said, "Drawing relatively firm lines is one of the most effective things a community can do to save farmland."
He pointed to communities in Marin and Napa counties as well as Maryland and Pennsylvania. Hughson briefed its leaders on urban limits in Oregon, calling it "a fantastic concept" that could be replicated here.
All successful efforts feature boundaries that have lasted decades, but they also promote conservation easements allowing landowners to enjoy equity by paying them to continue farming, Thompson said.
Brent Sinclair, Modesto's director of community and economic development, said "now is the perfect time" to consider long-range plans. "With development activity low, these are the types of activities we should be engaged in."
Merced Sun-Star
Large home inventory hidden in the shadows
Supply of unsold, unforeclosed units stalls real estate recovery.
By TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA - McClatchy Newspapers
MIAMI -- Officially, there are 3.5 million homes for sale nationwide. But there are millions more lurking in the shadows, hidden neatly away on banks' balance sheets, stalled in foreclosure court proceedings or simply occupied by nonpaying owners as lenders wait months or years before taking action.
The housing market's ballooning shadow inventory, buoyed by a yearlong foreclosure slowdown, stands as the most menacing obstacle to the recovery of the residential real estate market.
Clustered mostly in hard-hit cities and states, there are more than 4.5 million homes owned by lenders or headed for foreclosure.
In the Northern San Joaquin Valley, more than 70,000 homes have been foreclosed and repossessed by lenders since 2007, after more than $26 billion in mortgages went unpaid. Thousands of those homes have yet to be resold, though many are occupied by people who may or may not have the authority to be there.
A McClatchy analysis of four years of foreclosure data and thousands of property records found record-high levels of shadow inventory in several housing markets across the nation.
Though these shadow properties are routinely left out of monthly reports by real estate trade groups, their influence on home values has grown sharply in recent years.
In the supply-and-demand-reliant real estate market, the national supply of homes is officially listed at about 3.5 million, or about nine months' worth; sales are on track to reach about 5 illion this year. But once shadow inventory is added, that supply more than doubles, to at least 7.5 million. A healthy housing market has about a six-month supply of properties, which would be about 2.4 million.
Economists insist that the housing industry will not normalize and recover until most of the foreclosures work their way through the system, a process that likely will last several more years.
"There are a lot of foreclosed homes that haven't hit the market yet. They are not uncommon at all. Just look around in any neighborhood and you will see them," said Wayne Jones, a PMZ Real Estate agent in Modesto with 20 years of experience.
"When they do come on the market, I think it will have a negative effect on home values. Most people don't want to hear that," said Jones, who specializes in handling bank-owned properties.
Who owns this house?
Stanislaus County tax collector Gordon Ford said it has become increasingly difficult to figure out who owns many homes. When property taxes go unpaid, Ford's staff members make numerous attempts to contact owners. "We send out letters, but they come back to us," Ford said.
This year, Ford has started sending his staff to tax-delinquent properties to try to make personal contact with homeowners. "Many times, they return and say: We can't find who really owns the home."
Ford said sometimes the homes are empty. Sometimes people in them say they are renters. Sometimes the "homeowner" there has stopped paying the mortgage, but the bank hasn't filed the necessary documents to foreclose.
"It's true. The shadow inventory, or whatever you call it, is out there," Ford said.
And some people seem to be living in those shadows. The Bee visited some Modesto properties that were foreclosed more than a year ago and are owned by banks, according to Stanislaus County property records. But there are people living in the homes.
One south Modesto family's home had been foreclosed and repossessed by Bank of America in August 2010. But the Spanish-speaking couple living there insisted they didn't know anything about that, and their English-speaking daughter said they pay their mortgage every month.

Another central Modesto home, which county records show was repossessed by Wells Fargo Bank in December, also is being lived in. The Asian woman who answered the door said she didn't speak much English but that she and her daughter rent the home from a man who lives by Modesto Airport.
Lenders avoiding losses
In the aftermath of the largest home repossession campaign in history, mortgage lenders are holding properties off the market as a matter of strategy. Flooding the fragile housing market with an additional 500,000 to 1.1 million homes, many of them deteriorating and selling at deep discounts, would cause weak prices to fall further.
Mortgage lenders have shown no indication they are planning to ramp up foreclosure sales, and a growing number of vacant homes have idled on banks' balance sheets for several years.
According to data firm CoreLogic, the mortgage debt outstanding in the shadow inventory is about $336 billion. Wary of seeing such large losses appear on their books, lenders have been reluctant to deal with bad loans head-on, said Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates.
"They're afraid," he said. "They don't want to take those paper losses. Their books show that they have these assets that are worth 'X' amount of money. But those values are not real."
In Maricopa County, Ariz., public records show that Bank of America owns about 1,300 properties clustered in cities, including Phoenix and Mesa. Most of those homes are not marketed for sale on the lender's designated website for bank-owned properties, where just 440 Phoenix-area homes are shown for sale. Bank of America spokesman Rick Simon said some of the homes not listed on the open market might be advertised directly to investors.
In many parts of the country, the federal government is the largest institutional property owner, as government-run Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration hold about 250,000 homes.
Although at least 100,000 of those are not on the market, a review of public records in several states showed that Fannie and Freddie were more likely than other lenders to quickly liquidate foreclosed homes.
"Our goal is to sell as quickly as possible," said Fannie Mae spokesman Andrew Wilson.
A worsening outlook
The outlook for shadow inventory has worsened considerably over the past year because of lender paperwork problems that have gummed up the foreclosure system.
A year ago, major mortgage servicers discovered that employees were systematically cutting corners in the foreclosure process, often signing thousands of false or incomplete legal documents each day.
As details of the "robo-signing" scandal began to spread, lenders hit the brakes on all foreclosures, setting off a yearlong slowdown that continues.
Banks are struggling to prove that they have legal standing to foreclose, and it is taking them an average of nearly two years to repossess a property, according to data firm Lender Processing Services.
More than a million foreclosures that were supposed to be completed this year have been pushed into the future, prolonging the housing crisis, real estate research firm RealtyTrac found.
Nationwide, there are 2.2 million homes stuck in the foreclosure process, and many of those cases have stalled.
"I've got dozens of foreclosure cases in my office that started in 2008 and are still open, with lenders doing absolutely nothing to move these cases forward," Miami foreclosure defense attorney Dennis Donet said.
Lenders are also waiting longer before taking action against millions of homeowners who have stopped paying their mortgages.
Nearly 2 million homeowners who haven't paid their mortgage in three months or more have not received a foreclosure filing. About 800,000 of those have not made a mortgage payment in more than a year, according to Lender Processing Services.
"It's not an easy decision, but sometimes it's the only thing that makes financial sense," said Chae duPont, a Miami foreclosure defense attorney.
In Clark County, Nev., there are more than 28,000 homes with owners who have not paid their mortgages in more than three months, but who have not been hit with a foreclosure filing. Lenders, who own more than 30,000 homes in greater Las Vegas, do not seem to be in a hurry to take on more. The average foreclosure timeline in Clark County is 19 months.
Nationwide, 2.5 million homeowners are 30 to 60 days behind on payments.
Sacramento Bee staff writer Rick Daysog and Modesto Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti contributed to this report.
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