MODESTO -- Rural neighbors worried about their wells have blocked Modesto's plan to give the exclusive Del Rio hamlet more reliable tap water, at least for now.
A judge ordered a halt to the $6 million project pending a full airing in June in Stanislaus County Superior Court. After that, he could lift the temporary stoppage or make it permanent.
Opponents to the proposed well, water tank and pumphouse are claiming a preliminary victory. City Hall hopes it's only a road bump.
"It's just a pause," said Oakland lawyer Rick Jarvis, representing the city. "We're disappointed in the judge's (decision), but confident we'll ultimately prevail."
Modesto is bound by a 2005 legal settlement to upgrade the water supply for 1,270 people in the country club community north of the city, whose system was acquired by Modesto in 1995. A 600-foot well, 20-foot-tall storage tank and 22-foot pumphouse would augment Del Rio's three wells, improving water pressure and firefighters' ability to attack flames if needed, the city says.
Nearby property owners fear the well could suck at an underground aquifer supplying their shallower ranch and home wells. They're also concerned about noise and visual effects, and say they were given no chance to argue before City Council members launched the project a year ago.
Dick Michelotti's grandparents in 1936 obtained the land he farms across the street from the proposed well site. His parents live in the old family home and rely on an 80-foot well.
Michelotti assumed a sign-in sheet at an August 2011 meeting would be used to notify neighbors of future meetings, but he and his parents didn't learn of the City Council's March 2012 approval until five months later, he said.
He and a few others question the city's claim that no suitable property could be found closer than a half-mile from the exclusive community. Plans show a 2,500-foot pipe from the proposed well to Del Rio.
"They had a piece of ground in escrow," Michelotti said, "then all of sudden they got a lawsuit threat from neighbors who didn't want it next to them, and the next thing we knew, it was drop-kicked to our neighborhood.
"There are hundreds of undeveloped acres up there (in Del Rio), and they couldn't find two acres?" he continued. "The whole thing was stinkeroo from the start."
Opponents spoke up when council members on Dec. 4 weighed whether to award a contract for final design work. City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood said the city had met all requirements and the council voted 6-0 to move ahead.
An analysis predicts no harm to neighboring wells, and opponents' legal action came months after a legal deadline, Jarvis contended in court papers.
Some neighbors agreed to hire Sacramento attorney Daniel W. Smith, who convinced Judge Roger Beauchesne that holding off is best, until the June 28 hearing. Beauchesne first granted a temporary restraining order, then on Feb. 20 a preliminary injunction delaying further work.
"The potential damage
represents serious and irreparable harm," Beauchesne wrote in the ruling. He also found that the city had violated neighbors' rights to be notified so they could protest before the March 2012 City Council decision.
"We're pleased the work will stop until the petition is heard on merits," said Smith, who specializes in environmental law. "I think the court recognizes very compelling issues here and that they deserve a full analysis and review."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2390.
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