Mayor takes heat from Wood Colony audience

kvaline@modbee.comFebruary 15, 2014 

Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh faced the spotlight’s glare in Wood Colony on Saturday as he discussed and answered questions about the City Council’s recent decision to include this farming community west of Highway 99 in the city’s growth plans.

He spoke before about 200 colony residents and their supporters for about two hours at Hart-Ransom Elementary School. Despite requests from organizers to treat the mayor with respect, anger and frustration got the better of about a dozen audience members.

“You are coveting what is not yours,” one man said. “You are going against what you say you are, a God-fearing Christian man.”

Modesto is amending the transportation and land use components of its general plan, which serves as a blueprint for how the city will grow and develop in the coming decades. On Jan. 28, the council approved a land use map for the amendment, which includes setting aside 211 acres in the colony for regional commercial development, 1,254 acres for farmland and 941 acres for business parks.

A few hundred colony residents and their supporters packed council meetings in December and January to protest. They want Wood Colony removed from the general plan. The colony was founded more than a century ago by Old German Baptist Brethren and other settlers and remains a close-knit community. The colony’s farmland is some of the most productive in the state.

Saturday’s meeting did not start well for the mayor.

He told audience members he wanted to educate them about how the city amends its general plan so they would be better prepared to participate in the process next time. Modesto has spent about two years on the amendment, and Marsh asked for a show of hands among audience members who had attended any of the meetings the city held before the issue reached the council. No hands were raised.

Audience members objected to Marsh’s remarks. They also were upset that they had shown up by the hundreds at council meetings to protest, but it appeared as though no one on the council listened to them.

Jake Wenger – a Modesto Irrigation District board member, fourth-generation colony farmer and one of the event organizers – said the city only recently focused its attention on the colony once city staff recommended Modesto abandon its plans for Salida, the unincorporated town northwest of the city. But the council ultimately voted to keep Salida in the general plan.

Marsh backtracked. “I’m not trying to make an excuse that it’s your fault,” he said.

But audience members and organizers also thanked the mayor for being willing to meet with them.

He also gave the audience a primer on local politics. Marsh suggested the Chamber of Commerce – which has lobbied the city to include several thousand acres of land west of Highway 99 in the general plan – wants to delay the general plan amendment until there is a City Council more amenable to the chamber’s interests.

Marsh suggested the 3-4 council vote Jan. 28 to put aside the general plan amendment and consider a much more time-consuming, comprehensive general plan update was a tactic to draw out the process to give the chamber time to try to replace him and Councilman John Gunderson in the 2015 election.

Councilmen Dave Cogdill, Dave Lopez and Bill Zoslocki voted for a comprehensive general plan update, which would have been the city’s first in nearly 20 years. But Lopez also said at the same meeting he could not support including Wood Colony in the general plan, and Zoslocki expressed doubts.

Marsh said the chamber was especially troubled by two Jan. 28 council votes on the general plan amendment: One directs city staff to include policy language requiring new development to pay for the public safety it requires, and the other directs staff to include policy language requiring agricultural mitigation for development in new growth areas.

Both votes were 4-3, with Marsh and council members Gunderson, Jenny Kenoyer and Tony Madrigal voting for it. Marsh said he and the other council members are being good stewards of ag land despite the criticism they have faced.

About 1,000 acres in Wood Colony has been in the city’s general plan since 1995. The land is designated for business parks and regional commercial development, such as big-box retailers. But none of it has been annexed. That’s because the land is not in what is called Modesto’s sphere of influence.

A city cannot annex and develop land unless it’s in its sphere of influence, whose boundaries are set by the Local Agency Formation Commission, a land use agency that approves such matters as annexations and spheres of influence. LAFCo denied Modesto’s request in the 1990s to include the 1,000 acres in its sphere of influence.

But the land can still be developed under Stanislaus County’s auspices. That was one of the points Marsh made Saturday. That development is occurring in the colony, such as a veterinary hospital and almond huller.

The city is proposing in its amendment to roughly double the amount of Wood Colony land in its general plan. The land use map approved by the council was developed by the mayor and was shown to the public for the first time at the Jan. 28 meeting.

Marsh said Saturday he is willing to support removing the 1,254 acres of farmland from the general plan if that’s what colony residents want. He included the farmland in his map because he believed it would help keep that land in agriculture. He said he does not believe there are four council votes to remove the 211 acres designated for regional commercial, in part because landowners have told the city they want to be annexed.

Marsh said he supports keeping the 941 acres for business parks, which are along Highway 132, but does not support seeking to include those acres in the city’s sphere of influence now. He said when that section of Highway 132 is upgraded in several years into a four-lane expressway, that land will develop.

Marsh said he expects the City Council will vote on the sphere of influence for the general plan amendment within several months. LAFCo will make the final decision on that issue.

The colony residents at Saturday’s meeting reiterated a point they have made before: Wood Colony does not belong in the general plan. Wenger – the colony farmer and MID board member – received a standing ovation when he said Modesto needs to look to Kiernan Avenue to site its business and industrial parks.

He said Kiernan is being widened into a four-lane expressway and where it meets Claus Road is an ideal location for development because of the lesser quality soils and its proximity to Riverbank’s former ammo plant, which that city is turning into an industrial park.

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at kvaline@modbee.com or (209) 578-2316.

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