This is where we moved FROM. Looks like we got out just in time By J.N. SBRANTI BEE STAFF WRITER Last Updated: February 10, 2005, 05:24:01 AM PST The San Joaquin Valley's population is expected to more than double during the next 35 years, but where those newcomers will live is up for debate. A new computerized mapping system forecasts four dramatically different scenarios for urban growth in the valley: Continue letting builders scatter development throughout the valley, which could triple the urbanized area of Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Merced counties and consume more than a quarter of the valley's farmland. Forbid development on prime agricultural land, which could force residents to crowd onto less-fertile land and double the population density of Stanislaus County's cities. Route a high-speed rail system through the valley, which would encourage development in rings around train stations in Modesto, Merced, Los Banos and Stockton. Build a new north-south highway skirting the foothills on the valley's eastern edge, which could spark development along connecting Highways 132, 120 and 4. Those options are explored in the report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California. The alternatives are based on forecasts that the valley's population will double to more than 7 million by 2040. "This is the equivalent of adding 10 new Fresnos or putting the current population of Santa Clara, Alameda and Contra Costa counties into the eight-county San Joaquin Valley," the report explains. Its authors use computerized growth models to show how different the valley could look if development were diverted off prime farmland, steered toward new highways or ringed around train stations. "We're looking at possible worlds here," said Michael Teitz, who wrote "Urban Development Futures in the San Joaquin Valley" with Charles Dietzel and William Fulton. Teitz said the authors aren't advocating one plan over another, "just providing information to stimulate discussions on growth and development." "People in the valley are becoming more aware as to the consequences of growth, but they're ambivalent as to what to do about it," Teitz said in a phone interview Tuesday. If developers are allowed to urbanize the valley in patterns similar to what has happened the last 60 years, the report predicts cities could merge into each other along Highway 99 as urban sprawl coalesces. 26% of ag land could be lost Such unchecked development could triple the urbanized acreage in Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Merced counties. "Because farming communities were created in prime farmland areas â along what is now the Highway 99 corridor â the urbanization of land immediately adjacent to these population centers results in a major farmland loss," the report warns. It calculates that more than 26 percent of the valley's ag land could be lost if San Joaquin's eight counties and 62 cities continue their historic urbanization patterns â acting independently to authorize new developments. "I honestly don't think anybody wants that," said Carol Whiteside, president of the Great Valley Center, a Modesto-based nonprofit research group. Whiteside said the urban development report "reinforces the fact we have choices in (guiding the valley's future), but what we do depends on the public's interest and their political will." As an alternative to a heavily urbanized future, the report's authors programmed computers to map what the valley could look like if prime farmland were protected. There are 3.2 million acres of prime ag land in the valley, much of it along the Highway 99 corridor. Prime farmland all that's left In Stanislaus County, "virtually all the remaining undeveloped land is prime farmland," according to the report. If that land were protected, newcomers would have to be squeezed onto the less-fertile soil. Assuming population growth continues as projected, Stanislaus County's developed areas would have to accommodate 13 people per acre, which is double the present density. "The regulation of development at this scale is unlikely, but the scenario reflects the widely felt concern for farmland preservation and illustrates its likely results," the report states. Two more plausible growth scenarios were programmed into the authors' mapping software. One shows where growth likely would occur if a proposed high-speed rail system were built through the valley. That plan would connect the valley by rail to the Bay Area, Sacramento and Los Angeles, and it would include train stops in Los Banos, Merced, Modesto and Stockton. The report assumes the rail lines would focus growth within a 20-mile radius of the train stations. That scenario would concentrate development around existing cities along Highway 99 â especially in Merced, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties. The final growth scenario â which the report labels "probably the most likely" â creates automobile-oriented managed urbanization. Rather than cram more cars on Highway 99 or Interstate 5, the report explores what could happen if a new north-south freeway â an expansion of Highway 65 â were built along the valley's eastern edge. "The resulting urbanization pattern concentrates development along these transportation improvements, most particularly along the east-west â¦ Routes 4, 120 and 132," the report predicts. "This scenario creates linear cities in some areas where urban growth connected previously unconnected areas. This pattern is especially apparent in San Joaquin County, where urban growth connects Stockton with Tracy, Lodi, Manteca, Ripon and Escalon." That development scenario could pave over about 14.6 percent of the valley's farmland, but that's less than the 19.1 percent consumed by the high-speed rail model. Through geographer's eyes Teitz said the 115-page report represents a geographer's way of looking at potential growth in the valley, rather than a prediction as to what will happen. Teitz will give a multimedia presentation about his findings during a noon luncheon Monday in the Great Valley Center's community room, 201 Needham St., Modesto. The public is invited to the free event.