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Ben Cantu ups the political ante in his bid to get Manteca to evaluate growth policies
manteca housing
Manteca growth is accelerating to the point that 900 homes could be built on an annual basis within a year’s time. - photo by

Manteca Mayor Ben Cantu on Tuesday made a chess-like move to get the city to holistically address growth issues. It was a stroke of political genius.

For years Manteca’s elected leaders as well as key city management staff have sidestepped having “the conversation” about the one issue that trumps all others in Manteca — growth.

It’s not that some didn’t try to address critical aspects of the Rubik’s cube known as growth. Former Mayor Steve DeBrum repeatedly over the course of six years  tried to light the proverbial stick of dynamite under city staff to address growth-related fees he was sure were too low.

He repeatedly lamented — sometimes with a frustrated edge to his voice — that “Manteca was leaving money on the table” every time they issued a building permit.

To change that, state law requires an analysis known as a nexus to determine project costs and to identify what amount of that cost can be legally charged to growth for the impacts they specifically create.

DeBrum wasn’t able to rustle up enough support from the council majority to make it a “life or death” issue for staff to tackle. And quite frankly, more than a few people at the time at City Hall seemed to be sleepwalking through their jobs. Finally DeBrum got a portion of the growth fees updated but not until after nearly 2,500 homes were built. That, as the former mayor would say, left a lot of money on the table.

Before DeBrum’s efforts other elected officials tried to address things such as funding for a new library but were always stopped from doing so by the broken record that was queued up for such requests: The city lacks the staff to address the issue as municipal staff was buried with tackling work generated by growth.

And every time a frustrated elected official even hinted that maybe there should be a small pause in growth so Manteca could address some issues, it served as a call to arms by those convinced the city was going to undermine the livelihoods of thousands of people.

Cantu made a move that politically if his fellow council members ignore will be at their own peril.

Cantu is pushing for a moratorium on the city accepting residential projects for processing that are seeking tentative map approval while elected leaders examine a whole laundry list of growth issues in a bid to make sure growth results in the best Manteca possible.

He is doing so with at least 6,000 housing units already approved. That’s enough to keep the current building pace going for at least a decade. Cantu’s move also comes as others have made noises they will move residential projects forward. The reason is simple. The Bay Area regional economy shows signs of Manteca being able to support building 1,000 plus homes a year. That is a substantial acceleration of the current building pace that would deplete the backlog of approved lots significantly to spur other projects to be advanced.

Given a moratorium on processing more tentative maps even if it took a year to accomplish whatever growth-related adjustments the council may deem necessary won’t even create a small bump in the economy, Cantu’s request is more than reasonable.

If a council member seeks to simply sidetrack the idea of a tentative map moratorium for the purpose of adjusting how Manteca is managing growth they do so at considerable political risk. Given such a move would not damage any current or approved projects, opposition to it would make them appear as if they embrace growth at all costs.

Keep in mind Cantu has never been in the anti-growth camp. Instead he has consistently made clear that he wants growth to work for Manteca. That doesn’t mean what Cantu specifically wants to do when it comes to tinkering with growth strategies and their implementation is the right answer. There does, however, need to be a serious conversation taking place regarding growth before we wake up one day and find we are living in a city of 120,000 with a lot more deficiencies — perceived or otherwise — than we now have.

What the council might end up crafting during a moratorium won’t be done by stopping what has already been approved unless those map approvals lapse. Instead it will apply to housing units yet to be proposed.

Anyone who argues against the city taking a timeout for a short period to reboot is essentially saying they are happy 100 percent with how growth is unfolding.

That doesn’t imply those now building in Manteca are taking advantage of the city. But with all of the issues that have been raised regarding growth, it certainly would seem that those not willing to pause to take a deep hard look at the direction growth is taking are refusing to make sure Manteca is protected financially or assuring that growth leads to the best possible outcome.

Cantu has two points that can’t be ignored.

First, the last time Manteca had a no-holds barred all out discussion on growth, rethinking policies, and adjusting requirements to make sure Manteca is on course to get better and not just bigger was nearly 40 years ago.

Since then Manteca has added 48,000 residents making the current population in excess of 86,000. Manteca, during that time, has gone from the 648th largest city in the United States to the 424th largest.

Second — and most important — you can’t fine tune or overall a locomotive while it is speeding down the tracks.

A lot of well-meaning elected officials have tried to do just that in the past 30 years with minimal results.

Not saying Cantu has thought this far ahead, but whether his colleagues agree with just simply having serious discussions about growth while pausing tentative map processing will tee up the 2022 election to potentially be transformative.

By then Manteca will have crested 90,000 people at its current pace. The city would be on target to hit 100,000 by 2027.

It is a safe bet that this will jar a lot of people who will take note of deficiencies in a much more acute manner than they are now.

If Cantu fails to make headway, it is clear that those concerned with how growth may be deteriorating their perception of the quality of life in Manteca would not reject him in a re-election bid but would seek other candidates to join him in his bid to give Manteca’s growth polices and strategies a long overdue tune-up.

How Manteca handles growth is a political issue.

Cantu demonstrated he has a clear grasp of that given his move on Tuesday.