Along the wind-swept lower reaches of the Diablo Range foothills nudged up against the Alameda and Contra Costa county lines you will find a shining example of what might aptly be called “old school” smart planning.
This is where you will find Mountain House.
If the community roughly five miles somewhat to the northwest from Tracy was incorporated, it would have been the fastest growing city in San Joaquin County for the past decade. Mountain House has almost doubled in size going from 9,675 people in 2010 to 19,005 residents in 2020.
To out that in perspective, Ripon with 16,292 residents has taken over 140 years to accumulate its current population after it became a town site. Mountain House has gone from no one to 19,005 people in 18 years.
Ground is breaking Monday on a significant commercial development in Mountain House — a shopping center anchored by Safeway. Rest assured community leaders are pushing to incorporate for more autonomy than is allowed under their current community services district governance.
It makes sense. That’s because Mountain House could ultimately become the fourth largest city in San Joaquin County leaving Lodi and eventually Lathrop — despite its mega-planned community of River islands that’s in the process of being bumped up to 13,000 housing units — in the dust.
It may not happen for 30 to 40 years but the writing has been on the wall since Nov. 10, 1994.
That is when the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors made a decision to award the Mountain House the privilege of being a master planned community in a rural area of the county.
The project was the victory in a three-way race for the opportunity the county was creating. San Joaquin County — in a bid to protect agriculture — years prior had imposed zoning that made it difficult to break 80, 40, and 20 acre parcels into smaller parcels. It was enough to thwart developers from trying to amass rural land to cobble together large subdivision projects.
The idea was to not simply direct urbanization into cities but to prevent pockets of urbanized incorporated areas such as Raymus Village to pop up wily-nilly across San Joaquin County’s 1,426 square miles that stretch from the heart of the Delta to the rolling terrain of the lower Sierra foothills.
It was an early version of “smart growth”. Instead of allowing growth demands to slowly break down larger parcels into smaller ones for housing or to create more pockets of urban areas away from urban areas well established to handle higher densities, the goal was to address growth pressures with minimum impacts on agriculture as well as existing cities.
The supervisors back then with the likes of the late Bob Cabral, an almond grower from Escalon, understood the dangers of not just uncontrolled growth but also failing to plan to handle market and economic forces behind their control.
The goal was not to allow the Bay Area growth machine to run rampant through San Joaquin County while at the same time making life for those ended up living here something better than the mish-mash mess 1950s-1960s era growth created in unincorporated areas throughout the state such as Eastern Sacramento County, the Santa Clara Valley, and large swaths of the Los Angeles Basin. Such “smart growth” would also protect agriculture to a large degree.
The two planned community projects the supervisors rejected to secure the urbanization exception to county rules, speaks volumes about the soundness of their ultimate decision.
One was River Oaks along the Stanislaus River directly across from Riverbank.
That developer wanted to develop thousands of acres into an urbanized landscape teeming with homes.
Besides ripping out endless acres of almond orchards and farmland it would have created immense pressure on East Highway 120 and River Road as most buyers were expected to commute over the Altamont Pass.
Flooding wasn’t a concern as that point along the Stanislaus River is on relatively high ground.
The other contestant was New Jerusalem. That project named after the small clustering of homes and a school by the same name on the Highway 33 corridor south of Tracy was in the middle of a bustling agriculture area. It would have been accessible by taking Airport Way south of Manteca, crossing the river, and continuing west on the pavement that takes on the name of Durham Ferry Road
Mountain House, whose name is derived from the 16-room hotel built two miles from the summit of Mt. Diablo in 1874 that served a steady flow of “tourists” arriving by stagecoach and carriage, had agriculture use but the land wasn’t as prime or as easy to farm as the areas proposed for River Oaks and New Jerusalem.
It also had one other thing going for it — its proximity to the Bay Area and the key Interstate 680 commute corridor. That meant commute traffic future residents would create would have minimal impact on traffic within the county.
Toss in the fact that the county, led by Cabral, gave birth to what is now the Altamont Corridor Express to serve commuters and Mountain House was by far the best choice for an exception to the rule.
The first home foundation was poured on Jan. 18, 2003. That first home in what some at the time described “in the middle of a windy nowhere” has since morphed into a bustling community on target to surpass 20,000 residents sometime in 2022.
And if we are honest with ourselves, it is land in and around Mountain House where housing should go and not areas where it paves over what is arguably some of the best — if not best — prime farmland in the world. California farmland produces over a third of this nation’s vegetables as well as almost two thirds of its fruit and nuts.
The biggest impediment to its continued growth is likely to be what will be a challenge as well to the rest of California — water.
That is ironic given the Central Valley Water Project’s C.W. Bill Jones Pumping Plant at the head of the 117-mile Delta-Mendota Canal and the State Water Project’s Harvey O. Banks Pumping Plant at the head of the 444-mile long California Aqueduct are literally within a mile of the edge of Mountain House.
In June 2015 Mountain House’s water supply was at risk of running out as the water that flowed south past it had been long spoken for.
One out of every nine new residents helping add 96,383 people to the county’s population since 2010 live in Mountain House. Given Tracy’s today has a population of 98,601 that means the county added enough residents in the past decade to create a city the size of Tracy.
Look at Tracy and Mountain House as being eventually joined at the hip like Manteca and Lathrop and you can get a feel for the coming waves of growth washing into San Joaquin County from over the Altamont Pass.
Today the two communities have 117,606 residents. Compare that to Manteca and Lathrop with a combined 115,611 residents.
In less than 20 years if current growth rates throughout the county continue, the four communities that hold the aces for housing and industrial develop will surpass the population of Stockton.
The south is the future of San Joaquin County.
This column is the opinion of editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of The Bulletin or 209 Multimedia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org