Mike Dunbar: Modesto battle over Wood Colony could get louder

01/04/2014 6:00 PM

10/17/2014 9:01 AM

Lets call it “The Battle of Wood Colony.”

Roughly 350 people came out to Hart-Ransom School on Saturday morning for a meeting to discuss plan from the city of Modesto and Modesto Chamber of Commerce to include 1,800 acres of Wood Colony in the city’s general plan. That would open the way for annexation and eventual development, turning some of the best farmland in Stanislaus County into business parks.

Actually, it wasn’t so much a “meeting” as it was a war council. The people of Wood Colony were drawing up battle plans, forming alliances and getting ready for a vigorous defense of all that they value. They don’t see the Modesto plan as progress and opportunity, but as an assault on their families, their homes, their way of life.

“I’m totally against this crazy deal,” called out Pete Verburg, fresh off his dairy farm, “and I’ll do everything I can to fight it.”

“It’s about our soil, but more than that it’s about our people,” said Paul Wenger, who for the purposes of this column will be referred to as Gen. Wenger. “We have a heritage here that needs to be honored and it needs to be protected.”

Many of the people who live in Wood Colony have homes on the same property that their great-grandparents lived on 100 years ago. In 2002, Lowell Beachler compiled a 456-page book, “Wood Colony District,” detailing the families who settled the area. Three printings were needed to meet the demand.

Like any good general, Wenger (the president of the California Farm Bureau) has already found a strong ally. Katherine Borges, chairwoman of the Salida Muncipal Advisory Council, was the first to speak to what was officially a meeting of the Hart-Ransom Union School District, and she laid out an entire, ready-made battle plan for taking on the “Goliath” of Modesto.

Borges came well prepared with a presentation that showed the “Beckwith Triangle” being included in Modesto’s general plan as far back as 1996. She showed maps that identified the area’s excellent soils and referenced its value in recharging the aquifer.

This isn’t Borges’ first skirmish with Modesto; she’s been battling the city’s efforts to annex Salida for several years – and she appears to be winning. She got a roar of approval from the crowd when she described Modesto appealed to her sense of pity in the fight over Salida. A city official pointed to the lack of suitable building sites near Highway 99, suggesting that’s why Salida would be annexed. “Why should Salida have to pay for 143 years of bad planning?” she asked.

Her victories might even be part of the reason Modesto has cast its eyes on Wood Colony.

Modesto leaders are convinced there isn’t enough “shovel ready” land in the city to entice job-creating businesses. They say big employers aren’t interested in 10- or 20-acre parcels, but need large swaths on which to build and expand. And while there is roughly 600 acres remaining in and around Beard Industrial District, the city feels it needs to add 300 acres a year to its land inventory to be competitive with other valley cities.

Mayor Garrad Marsh makes the case that Modesto needs to grow somewhere. And Wood Colony is apparently preferable to the area around Ohio Avenue west of Modesto that had been in the general plan but has since been removed. It is also preferable for those businesses that rely on being close to the highway – logistics companies like those currently locating in Patterson.

The mayor also points out that no development would take place for probably 25 years even if Wood Colony is included in the plan. And if no family ever agrees to sell their land, then no development at all will take place. It’s unreasonable to expect families would want to farm the ground forever.

It’s unlikely anyone who lives in Wood Colony will be anymore sympathetic to those arguments than was Borges.

She urged everyone to attend Tuesday night’s Modesto City Council meeting and be prepared to speak. Not everyone who might want to speak will be allowed to. The discussion of the general plan is actually a continuation of the council’s Dec. 3 meeting, and those who spoke at that meeting won’t get to speak again.

That doesn’t mean they will be silenced. Councilmembers can remove controversial elements from the general plan update for more discussion before a vote is taken on Jan. 28 – and it’s a foregone conclusion the Wood Colony proposal will need more discussion. Everyone will be allowed to speak on the 28th, so Tuesday night’s discussion is not the last chance to be heard. Still, Borges pointed out that there are other ways to be “heard.” She suggested bringing signs with pointed messages.

Meanwhile, Borges said residents should start preparing for a petition campaign and keep submitting stories and letters to The Bee’s Opinion pages.

Speaking of petition campaigns, an online campaign has already gained hundreds of signatures from people as far flung as Connecticut and Florida. Copies have been sent to city hall and to The Bee. The petitions have no legal standing, but most of those who have signed are from Modesto or nearby.

That, perhaps, should worry the folks who are advancing this plan. While the people who live in Wood Colony have little say about whether or not they will be targeted for annexation, people who live in Modesto do. At least indirectly. They could scuttle this plan by the mere act of voting out of office anyone who supports it.

And Gen. Wenger intends to bring the fight to Modesto, urging those at the meeting to tell Modesto businesses “if you’re going to affect our way of life, we’re not going to support your business.”

The city and chamber will have a fight on their hands if they try to push this through. Unless the council removes the area from its general plan, the Battle of Wood Colony won’t be over on the 28th or likely a long time to come.

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