Two Westside development projects moved one step further in their planning stages Tuesday, despite opposition from environmentalist and farm groups.
Merced County's Board of Supervisors unanimously green-lighted parts of the two projects, echoing the Planning Commission's earlier approval.
The board first approved a tier-one development agreement with River West Investments -- only one of the owners of a 1,700-acre new town that has yet to be built -- which will lock in current planning rules for the next 20 years.
The agreement will exempt the project from the possible effects of the Save Farmland initiative and other land-use changes coming down the line.
The Villages of Laguna San Luis development agreement is meant to assure the developers that the rules won't change on them midstream, said Bill Nicholson, assistant development services director with the county. "They are asking for a locking in of all the rules when their plan was passed," he said.
The other project before the board -- a batch cement plant and subdivision in Volta proposed by Don Chapin -- was also given the green light.
The board accepted an initial environmental study on the impacts of the concrete plant, which will allow the project to move forward.
The 26-acre subdivision at the southeast corner of Henry Miller Avenue and Volta Road was appealed by several activist groups for what they claimed was a lack of environmental oversight and study of the project's impacts. The board voted down an appeal of the Planning Commission's approval of the project.
Both projects were opposed by local farm interests and environmentalists.
Opponents of the Laguna San Luis development -- the Merced County Farm Bureau, the Valley Land Alliance and the Merced County chapter of California Women for Agriculture -- opposed the project for what they called the "special" nature of the development agreement and its lack of foresight planning.
The farm bureau's Executive Director Amanda Carvajal said her group opposes the project because it not only lacks precedent by locking in the agreement for 20 years when there is a general plan update in the works, but it also fails to plan properly. "We request that the supervisors not pass this agreement with the villages," she said.
She also wondered aloud where the water for this new town will come from when Westside farmers are already having issues with the limited resource.
Carvajal said in the long run the project will benefit out-of-town developers -- not the county of Merced.
Jean Okuye, with the Valley Land Alliance, said no other such agreement has been made in the past.
Supervisor Deidre Kelsey, who voted to move the project forward along with the rest of the board, said that denying the developer's request would be unfair.
How, she asked, can the county stop this project in its tracks just because the county plans to do something different in the future?
Kelsey added that there have been other development agreements similar to this one in the past, so it's not all that unique.
The cement plant opponents argued that the county failed to thoroughly study the plant's environmental impacts and said the county did do a proper environmental impact study.
"We believe there needs to be a higher level of scrutiny," said Maureen McCorry with San Joaquin Et Al.
She said the county and its planning staff have rubber-stamped the project without looking into the impacts on the environment and wildlife. "There is an obligation for the county to pay attention," she said about the oversight of such projects.
The county's planners disagreed on every point, arguing that every single issue raised about the cement project has been studied and there will be no adverse environmental impacts on the area or its wildlife.
County planners said they estimate there will be about 100 truck trips out of the plant every day and it will produce roughly 300 cubic yards of cement a day.
The plant will not produce more than 70,000 yards of cement a year.
Both projects' environmental studies were received by the Board of Supervisors.
Reporter Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at (209) 385-2484 or firstname.lastname@example.org.