Modesto Chamber of Commerce plan sparks debate

kcarlson@modbee.comJuly 6, 2013 

Stanislaus County leaders gave a mixed reaction to the Modesto Chamber of Commerce's plan for prosperity, with some calling it a starting point for further discussion about the county's future.

The chamber is suggesting that Modesto diversify the local economy by designating thousands of acres for new industry west of Highway 99. It wants to expand Highway 132 as a link to the Bay Area and use funds from a countywide road tax to improve the transportation network to serve new job centers.

The chamber, which presented the plan to county leaders last week, also has ideas for ag investment zones and putting new housing on less productive soils.

While the plan is largely focused on Modesto's growth, the county would have a role in transportation planning and overseeing ag investment zones, which would give farmers the certainty their land would remain in agriculture.

Supervisor Terry Withrow said the chamber's ideas are a good start for discussing regional planning, but he expressed doubts about a 7,700-acre study area for business parks west of Highway 99 and north of Highway 132. The study area stretches from Hammett Road to 132.

The supervisor referred to the potential industrial area as the "Beckwith Triangle on steroids," an allusion to a proposed industrial complex west of Vintage Faire Mall that was opposed by Wood Colony residents and others who want to save the area's rich farmland.

"There is a lot of merit to what you have put together, but it's a starting point," Withrow told chamber officials last week. "We are going to work on this, but we have a long way to go."

Supervisor Jim DeMartini said he could talk for an hour about his concerns. He said he will not support a countywide road tax. The amount of land for industrial expansion is unrealistic and easily could be rezoned for housing subdivisions later, he said.

DeMartini added that chamber officials are discounting the ability of agriculture to create food- processing jobs and related employment.

Supervisor Dick Monteith agreed with the chamber that better freeway access is needed so that products made in the county can be shipped to consumer markets.

Supervisor Bill O'Brien didn't express an opinion on the plan, but said he hopes it spurs debate "on what we want to be as a county 40 to 50 years from now."

Plan likely to evolve

Chamber officials said they don't expect everyone will agree with their plan in a county where fierce battles have been waged over land use and farmland protection. They expect their plan will continue to evolve as its presented to other cities and local government agencies.

"We weren't really looking for them to endorse it or not endorse it," said Brad Hawn, a former Modesto councilman who is working with the chamber. "The county asked the chamber to make the presentation because it has gotten so much attention."

Stanislaus County leaders approved their own ambitious plan for job expansion only six years ago. Dubbed the Salida Now plan, it called for almost 3,400 acres of development east of Salida, between Modesto and Del Rio, with land designated for 4,500 homes, a commercial center and business parks where more than 25,000 people could work.

Today, the plan is considered an overreach. It relies on fees charged to the homes to fund the roads and other improvements for the business parks. And it was developed as a blueprint for making Salida a self-governing city, setting up the current dispute between Salidans and Modesto leaders who covet the territory.

Because their jobs plan would have a profound impact on the northern third of the county, chamber officials said they will pitch their ideas to officials in Ceres, Riverbank and Salida. They said the main goal is making shovel-ready sites available for bringing jobs to the county.

Official: Salida Now plan first

Katherine Borges, who is leading a campaign to incorporate Salida, said she doesn't favor the chamber's plan because Modesto would enclose the community of 13,700 residents on the east and west if the industrial areas are included in Modesto's growth plan.

The 3,400-acre Salida Now plan should be developed to benefit Salida; it could generate $22 million for city government services when completely built, Borges said.

"You would need a developer to work with interested landowners and get the environmental studies done," Borges said. "Another sticking point is Salida needs a source of water. Modesto does not want to provide the water service unless they annex the land."

Hawn said not all of the industrial areas in the chamber plan would need to become part of Modesto. He said the main focus is bringing jobs by having shovel-ready land near transportation corridors such as Highways 132 and 99.

Chris Murphy, a chamber member who has worked on the plan, said the county needs to attract new businesses but also needs to prevent companies from leaving. Modesto is one of the few cities of its size that's served by only one freeway, and there's a lack of major traffic connections running east and west across the county.

A countywide road tax would provide local matching dollars for securing large federal and state grants for road improvements. Proponents are waiting for state legislation to lower the approval threshold to 55 percent before taking the sales tax to voters — possibly in 2016.

Modesto Attorney George Petrulakis, who's also working with the chamber, said policies could be adopted to ensure there's no "bait and switch" tactics with the industrial sites. He said the strongest tool would be zoning the industrial areas through a ballot measure to prevent them from being converted to housing.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or (209) 578-2321.

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