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March 27, 2014

North County Corridor details unveiled in maps

New maps of potential paths for the North County Corridor are sure to pump up some traffic-weary drivers while deflating the owners of homes, properties and businesses in the way.

New maps of potential paths for the North County Corridor are sure to pump up some traffic-weary drivers while deflating the owners of homes, properties and businesses in the way.

Though final selection of the exact route is a couple of years away, the maps for the first time show the fine detail of dozens of miles of property that could be sacrificed for frontage roads along the future expressway, many with buildings that would have to be torn down. The maps also envision a pair of roundabouts on the east end near Oakdale, regardless of which hotly disputed option is chosen.

The documents clarify that a stretch between Modesto and Riverbank will resemble a true freeway, with ramps but no stops as an elevated North County Corridor lifts over McHenry Avenue, Coffee and Oakdale roads, and Roselle Avenue. Vehicles could stop at more rural intersections, with traffic signals the rest of the way to Highway 108-120 east of Oakdale.

The 18-mile expressway represents a golden economic opportunity, supporters say, opening a convenient path for commerce toward Sacramento and the Bay Area, and would reduce time spent in traffic. But farmers, business people and homeowners fear losing property or prized country quiet.

State transportation leaders no longer have a choice on the stretch west of Claus Road, as only one path remains in the running. Property owners to the east will wait until a final route emerges in 2016, with construction expected from 2020-22, if state and local leaders secure enough money for the $400 million project.

A recent decision to drop the idea of a transportation tax has erased a potentially important source of funding for the North County Corridor and other repair and new-road projects. If it had been approved by voters throughout Stanislaus County, the tax might have raised $970 million over 25 years, with $18 million earmarked each year for the expressway and two others, one each in the central and south parts of the county.

Local leaders expect to push ahead on the North County Corridor with whatever money they can get. “We plan to build something in 2020,” said Matt Machado, the county’s public works director.

Interchange ramps at McHenry, Coffee, Oakdale and Roselle would feature only one stoplight controlling traffic passing under raised freeway lanes, as opposed to a traditional layout with signals on either side. Highway 99’s Stockton interchange with Arch Road often is mentioned as an example of the single-light configuration that seems popular in new projects.

Not everyone is thrilled with the maps, however.

“This would have a huge effect on my family,” said George Ismail, who continues to live in the only home he and his wife have owned, which was bought two decades ago. They raised four children on the three-acre ranchette south of Riverbank.

The expressway would miss their home, but a new frontage road would nearly kiss it, erasing their front yard. Engineers drew the frontage road to provide a new way for the Ismails and neighbors to reach Claus, as they won’t be able to pull directly onto the busy North County Corridor.

“I wouldn’t stay,” Ismail said. “We don’t want to live on a freeway.”

Norman and Eileen Ohlson face a similar problem, except the freeway would be even closer to their home near McHenry and they would jump on a new frontage road at the rear of their property.

“I hate to say, ‘Take them, not me,’ ” Eileen Ohlson said in the custom home her husband built 32 years ago – oriented to receive visitors from the front and not the back. “It’s very disheartening. The impact on us doesn’t seem to be a consideration.”

Mike Bambacigno and several extended family members could lose their homes on land acquired by his grandfather in 1926, as well as a 60-year-old steelworking plant bearing the family name where McHenry meets Claribel Road and Kiernan Avenue.

“What a waste of money,” said Bambacigno, owner of Mike’s Branding Iron BBQ catering business. “It’s nuts. I just don’t think they need that (much land).”

The other businesses at that intersection are also facing a wrecking ball – a Cruisers gas station, a Taco Bell, the Empire Sportsmen’s Association Game Room, Showcase Auto Sales, an apartment complex and a horse ranch.

Riverbank City Hall would give up part of its ongoing vision of transforming a former Army ammunition plant into an industrial park, but would gain much better access for trucks and other vehicles.

Farmland along the expressway would go, and a feedlot near Oakdale might as well.

“These are huge impacts,” Machado acknowledged, “but that’s what it takes to build a freeway.”

Colt Esenwein, Machado’s deputy, said engineers tried “to the best of our ability to follow property lines and not go over structures” when drawing potential paths for the expressway, in an attempt to minimize disruption.

Government agencies wield power of eminent domain, or the ability to seize property for public projects such as roads. They must pay “fair market value” to obtain land and must pay to relocate residents and businesses, who can sue if they don’t agree with offers.

Machado predicts the map detail afforded in a transparent process will generate “hundreds of comments, and they will be negative. That means we’ve done our job.”

Some people who previously complained have prompted significant changes as plans have evolved. The most obvious example came when leaders, who initially hoped to build a 26-mile freeway from Highway 99 near Salida to Oakdale, dropped the first few western miles under strong opposition, opting instead to beef up Kiernan between Highway 99 and McHenry.

That spared anxious neighbors on Thieman Road, while another organized protest removed from consideration the Crawford Road, Chenault Drive and Amy Avenue neighborhoods.

On the eastern stretch, the concerns of Burchell Nursery, an economic powerhouse with 250 seasonal employees, successfully moved a preliminary alignment. But owners of some ranchettes on Stearns Road could be forced to sell and move, if leaders choose a path there.

Machado and Esenwein said southern options near Oakdale would cost more because they are longer and would require buying more land for frontage roads.

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