A long-debated 35-home development in Snelling was all but given the OK by the Merced County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday morning.
It may be the first major growth the town of roughly 300 people has seen in years.
The project had been stalled for almost nine months by environmentalists appealing the Planning Commission's green lighting of the development in January.
The proposed subdivision, Lakeview Properties, runs along the north side of Merced Falls Road just east of Snelling and the Snelling Merced Falls Elementary School.
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Four of the five supervisors voted to deny the appeal of the Planning Commission's earlier decision -- Deidre Kelsey was the project's only opponent -- and for their own rubber-stamping of the development's environmental review.
The appeal was filed by two environmental groups -- The San Joaquin Raptor Rescue Center and Protect Our Water. Both groups claim the county should further study the development's impact. They also argue that the planning process violated state environmental law (California Environmental Quality Act) and that the planning process also violated state open meeting laws, among other issues.
Both environmental groups have argued that the project's impact will be so substantial that an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) should be conducted before any further action is taken. Those impacts include a loss of habitat for listed raptors and the endangered tiger salamander, as well as impacts on streams and riparian waterways. The two groups also claim the project will affect nearby irrigation canals and that the initial study conducted on the site's ecological impacts didn't factor in greenhouse gas emissions that will come from the homes and the vehicles frequenting the development.
The planning department's staff addressed each and every claim made by the groups and said that the claims were unfounded. They added that 14 mitigation measures will lessen the project's impact.
The vote by the majority of the Board of Supervisors basically gave the project their stamp of approval, and declared that no further study of the impacts or mitigation is needed.
The only opponent on the board was Supervisor Kelsey, in whose district the project resides.
Kelsey worried about how the new homes will affect not only the area's environment, but also the safety of residents along local roadways. She said many people in Snelling have wanted the project to pay for all of or part of a sidewalk from the nearby school to the site so that people don't have to walk on the dangerous shoulder of the road.
"There is consensus that there needs to be some kind of walking path from the school to this property," she said
Kelsey also said Snelling's Specific Urban Development Plan only includes the area because a wastewater treatment plant had been planned there long ago. It was never meant to be in the SUDP for housing. "This has been a topic of debate since 1987 in Snelling," said Kelsey.
While the project was all but OK'd, several conditions of its final approval may still hang in the balance, pending a study of the development's impacts on traffic and local roadways. If it's found the project will affect area road safety, the developer could be forced to build a sidewalk.
A hearing on the subject is scheduled for the first board meeting in 2011 after a 120-day period is over.
Supervisor Jerry O'Banion, meanwhile, said the project had been stalled for long enough and should move ahead as soon as possible. He also said he didn't see the possibility of a sidewalk. Why, he asked, would all the property owners along the road agree to give up their right of way for such a project?
Reporter Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at (209) 385-2484 or firstname.lastname@example.org.