MODESTO — For more than a century, people living just west of Highway 99 in Wood Colony have been growing food on some of the most productive farmland in the nation while sustaining a way of life that stresses family and community.
But the farmers in the colony an area bounded roughly by Highway 99 to the east, Murphy-Bacon Road to the north, Maze Boulevard to the south and Gates Road to the west fear their way of life is at risk under Modestos proposal to designate hundreds of more acres of their land for industrial and commercial use.
The Chamber of Commerce and other supporters of the proposal say designating more land for industry and commerce is critical if Modesto is going to address one of its main problems: its stubbornly high unemployment rate. Stanislaus Countys rate was 11.7 percent in October, roughly 50 percent higher than the statewide rate.
Chamber of Commerce CEO Cecil Russell told City Council members at their Dec. 3 meeting that he celebrates the agricultural economy and what it does for the county. But he added: We have a chronic problem that has existed for a long time. Its called jobs. ... Its the root of our problems. Its the root of our economic woes.
The Modesto Planning Commission and city planners have spent about two years on the proposal, which is part of amending the transportation and land-use components of the citys general plan. The plan serves as a blueprint for how Modesto will grow and develop. The City Council took its first look at the proposal Dec. 3 and is expected to consider it again at its Jan. 7 meeting before making a decision Jan. 28.
The chamber has been working on a similar plan and has endorsed the citys proposal.
Not within the city limits
Even though the general plan has designated about 1,000 acres of the colony for commercial and business parks for nearly 20 years, the colony is not within the city limits. None of those acres has been developed. And increasing the amount of land designated for development does not force farmers off their land. A landowner would have to want to sell his land to a developer, and the city would need to get permission from a growth regulating agency to annex the land.
But Wood Colony residents fear increasing the amount of land designated for development is a critical first step.
Once you put a line on a map, you have a real problem, said Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation and a Wood Colony farmer, whose grandparents settled in the colony in 1910.
Residents also fear that while the land may be designated for warehouses, logistics and manufacturers, what ultimately will be built are subdivisions of single-family homes. Proponents claim that will not happen. (The proposal exempts the Wood Colony Cemetery and other land, but residents say the city is saving only a sliver of the colony.)
Wenger and others say they understand the need to diversify the economy and generate more well-paying jobs. But they say the city should designate industrial and commercial development on less productive farmland, such as in east Modesto, which one day will be connected to Highway 99 with an expressway.
Chamber officials and proponents of the citys proposal say easy access to Highways 99 and 132 is important in attracting business parks, manufacturers and warehouses, and claim Modesto does not have other suitable land for this type of development.
Some of the nations finest soil
Stanislaus is one of the top agricultural counties in the state and nation. Its farmers produced a record $3.28 billion in gross revenue last year. That does not include the multiplier effect as that money is spent and recycled in the local economy.
Colony farmers say they have some of the finest soil in the nation. Over the decades, the colonys farmers have grown wheat, apricots and peaches, run small dairies and raised poultry. They now grow mainly walnuts and almonds.
I think this is one of the most productive ag areas in the world, said farmer Eric Heinrich, whose great-great-great-grandparents settled in the colony in 1904. Climate, water and soil its rare to find all three aligned as well as they do west of Modesto.
This is just so special out here. Id hate to see this gobbled up by city growth. You can never take blacktop back out. We can grow anything out here. Id just hate to see this prime, No. 1 farmland be used to put blacktop on it.
Old German Baptist Brethren were among the settlers who came to the colony more than a century ago. (The colony is named after Eben Wood, who was not a member of the church and farmed what is considered the heart of the colony until the 1880s.) The colony also is home to Portuguese from the Azores, Swiss, Italians and others.
The colony and its family farms are more than an agricultural enclave. Residents say they enjoy the fruits of a community that values volunteerism and looking out for ones neighbor. And though many families have lived in the colony for generations, they welcome newcomers.
They say you can witness that community spirit in the volunteer firefighters who staff the Woodland Avenue Fire District, the barbecues held after harvest and the Farm Bureaus potluck Thanksgiving, which draws more than 100 people, making it the bureaus biggest Thanksgiving in the county.
Hart-Ransom Elementary School is another community jewel. School board President Alan Cover said about 800 students attend Hart-Ransom and the districts charter school has about 280 students.
He estimates about half of the students are from outside the district because their parents value the education their children receive at Hart-Ransom. Cover said the district gets 400 to 500 applicants when it has an opening for a teacher.
Im proud of the fact that my family has been here more than 100 years, Cover said. Its pretty unique that you have four generations of one family go to one school.
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2316.