OAKDALE -- A major employer is upping the ante in an emerging debate over the best route for a future freeway.
Burchell Nursery, which puts about 250 people to work seasonally, is not happy that officials are considering bisecting the operation's 700 acres with the North County Corridor. A spokesman threatened to move from Wamble Road to Fresno County, though company President Tom Burchell is taking more of a wait-and-see stance.
An optional route in that area east of town would disrupt a few dozen families, obliterating some ranchettes, and their owners have begun meeting to explore organized opposition.
Neither side wants to pick a fight with the other.
"We know the Burchells," said Katy Winders, who is among those whose properties are threatened along Stearns Road and Townhill Avenue. "We would hate to see that happen to them."
Tom Burchell said, "We love their family, too. In one respect, you displace 40 homeowners or you displace one (company) us. That's a hard argument."
Complicating matters is the city's desire for tax revenue from a potential commercial development southeast of the intersection at Stearns Road and Highway 108, which could be fed by traffic from the new expressway. Oakdale officials have lobbied hard in favor of the Stearns option, which would spare the huge nursery but could sacrifice the ranchettes' country quiet.
"To go out too far doesn't make sense for Oakdale," CouncilwomanKathy Morgan said, "and we would never want to wipe out Burchell. They bring too much to our community."
Tom Burchell's grandfather started a McHenry Avenue nursery on what were Modesto's outskirts in 1942, and branches were established in Oakdale in the 1970s and in Fresno County in 1983. The nursery has become one of California's largest sellers of fruit and nut trees for commercial growers, producing about 2 million trees each year in Oakdale and 1 million in Fresno County.
The nursery's exit from Modesto was prompted by a Pelandale Avenue extension, and part of its Oakdale operation was replaced by the Burchell Hill subdivision.
"It seems like every time we buy land, they want to put a road through it," Burchell said. "We thought this 700 acres way, way east of town would do us for the rest of our lives. Now I don't know what's going to happen."
Spokesman Dick Hagerty, a Bee community columnist, said in an Oakdale Leader letter that the nursery "will be forced to relocate to south Fresno County" if the Wamble route is chosen for the expressway, "and Stanislaus County will lose yet another major employer."
The nursery owns only 106 acres near Fowler in Fresno County, used for a breeding program and container seedlings grown in shelters, and could not replicate the operation in Oakdale with saplings in 600 acres of soil at a given time. The nursery will weigh all options, Burchell said.
Matt Machado, Stanislaus County's public works director and project leader for the North County Corridor, said, "We'd like to provide crossings to keep the ranch operational." That means bridges or tunnels.
Bisecting family land
Joy Bloomingcamp, whose pastoral barn-turned-bake shop and duck pond are a regional draw, said it would be "horrible" if the nursery pulled up stakes. But she was more appalled when transportation officials proposed a freeway through her almonds and walnuts family-owned for five generations where the Stearns route would connect with Highway 108.
"We really want to stay a farm," she said.
Some ranchette owners wonder why the ramp would veer across Bloomingcamp's ranch instead of connecting with the highway closer to Stearns. It's obvious, they say, that Oakdale officials want to preserve that land for more than 1 million square feet of new stores and offices in their Sierra Pointe vision.
But Oakdale has a public-relations problem with that land, which is controlled by a developer who owes the city as much as $500,000 in fees for studies that were not collected because of "lack of oversight" by city staff.
The developer is negotiating to pay the debt when he sells land elsewhere, City Attorney Tom Hallinan said Thursday.
Ranchette owners, Bloomingcamp and others met informally Wednesday in the Winders family's barn to study maps and discuss options. They are reaching out to people north of Highway 108, as well, who could be exposed to traffic noise if ramps are raised in that area.
"We're more than just some lines on a map. You're talking about families," Curt Porter said.
Advice from others
The group is getting advice from Modestans who are lobbying to "make Kiernan work," or avoid sacrificing rural land by having Kiernan Avenue and Claribel Road double as the North County Corridor near Modesto. That effort is poised to succeed if transportation leaders discontinue a segment north of Modesto. The expressway once was envisioned as a 26-mile stretch linking Highway 108 to Highway 99 near Modesto.
That vote is expected at 4:30 p.m. Nov. 21 in the basement chamber at Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St., Modesto, when officials from Modesto, Riverbank, Oakdale and Stanislaus County gather as the North County Corridor Authority.
Authority staff recently briefed the Oakdale City Council with concerned ranchette owners in the audience and expect to repeat the presentation soon for the Riverbank Council, perhaps on Oct. 22.
On Monday, the Modesto Planning Commission will review a plan to study the state's eventual "relinquishment" to local control of Highway 108 from Modesto through Riverbank to Oakdale. Relinquishment would happen after the North County Corridor takes over the area's traffic burden. Monday's meeting begins at 6 p.m. in the basement chambers at Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2390.