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Development game adding new players

Enlisting support from political heavy hitters appears to be a powerful emerging strategy in controversial developments.

And it works, judging by the outcomes of hotly contested plans for a huge business park in Crows Landing and a new town around the Turlock Golf and Country Club.

Both overcame significant opposition after letters from multiple state representatives, who normally stay out of land-use debates before local officials.

A congressman even weighed in on the Crows Landing tug of war, and two university presidents threw their weight behind the private country club vision.

"This is not business as usual," said Ray Simon, who retired after three decades as a Stanislaus County supervisor only weeks before February's Crows Landing vote. "If this is the beginning of an unheard-of era of state and federal representatives attempting to influence land-use planning, it's a sorry deal."

Developers pushing the tactic say it makes good sense as officials increasingly look beyond neighborhood impacts and turn to large-scale, regional planning.

"It's a different game" from past eras, said attorney Michael Warda, representing the country club team. "I like the fact that these guys (state legislators and university presidents) are paying attention."

Both sets of plans had drawn plenty of negative attention before the bigwigs got involved.

Gerry Kamilos and PCCP West Park last year lost key advisory votes by members of two county committees who favored Ross Perot Jr.'s Hillwood plan. People living in Crows Landing, Patterson and much of the West Side also lined up against Kamilos.

But he has friends in high places.

U.S. Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, joined state Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, in a letter endorsing a rail link from the former naval air base at Crows Landing to the Port of Oakland. The letter does not mention Kamilos or his company, but he championed the short-haul rail idea and his competitor did not.

"We believe this may well be the most important development decision the county will ever make," Cardoza and Cogdill wrote.

Assembly members Greg Aghazarian, R-Stockton, and Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, wrote a similar joint letter to county supervisors, as did state Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-San Luis Obispo, chairman of the state Senate's Agriculture Committee.

Kamilos was unavailable this week for comment, a secretary said.

Many said they were shocked at what some supervisors called meddling by higher-ups.

"I was sickened by the political manipulation," said Supervisor Jim DeMartini, who represents the West Side and whose vote was on the losing end of a 3-2 nod to Kamilos.

"The amount of political pressure we got on this thing was unprecedented. It was out of place, and if anything, I resented it. It was a local land-use decision, not anything that federal or state government should get involved in."

Others involved in the country club vote had similar reactions.

JKB Homes failed to win over municipal advisory councils in Hilmar and Delhi for its vision of 3,500 homes on 1,600 rural acres. Opponents gathered 550 signatures on petitions and county staff warned that the project could trump studies of a Highway 165 bypass of Hilmar and a nearby interchange on Highway 99.

But Warda, the development team's attorney, secured support from University of California at Merced Chancellor Steve Kang and California State University, Stanislaus, President Hamid Shirvani. And Galgiani joined state Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Merced, in a letter to Merced County supervisors regarding the golf town plan.

Turlock is in Stanislaus County, and the golf course and country club is just over the border in northern Merced County.

"I was flabbergasted," said Merced County Supervisor Deidre Kelsey, who represents that area. She was on the losing end of a 3-2 vote allowing developers to begin a series of studies for the new town.

"Land use is my purview, not theirs," Kelsey said. "I will not support any state or federal elected official who attempts to influence a land-use decision."

Simon, DeMartini and Kelsey said they could not remember such public arm-twisting by elected or academic officials.

"Never in my entire history," said Simon, a supervisor for 32 years. "You just kind of stay out of those things."

Tom Van Groningen, former chancellor of the Yosemite Community College District, said he didn't get involved in housing debates in his 16 years at the helm.

"I was always very careful to make sure not to support one side or the other of a controversial plan such that it might negatively reflect on the organization I worked for," he said.

Ethics expert Bob Stern at the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles said, "There is nothing illegal about it, but it raises my antenna. Why do (university presidents) care?"

Because the golf town could rival Del Rio's custom estate homes north of Modesto. which could help "us to attract executives, deans, vice presidents and senior faculty who do want esthetically pleasing housing," Shirvani said this week.

He has been more active in public policy than his predecessor, Marvalene Hughes. Shirvani persuaded Turlock City Council members to add "University Way" to Monte Vista Avenue street signs after a political struggle.

Shirvani wasn't afraid to wade into the middle of a fiery debate over a three-story, 211-unit apartment project in Turlock. He figured the complex could help students and faculty and wrote a letter saying so before City Council members approved it in March.

And he supports various efforts to bring jobs to the area.

"My role is to make sure the university advances," Shirvani said. "Any project, whether housing or otherwise, that would benefit the university, I would be out there supporting it."

Shirvani also takes interest because of his professional background. He referred to himself in the letter as "an internationally recognized authority on urban design with extensive published works in the field."

Kang was simply complying with Univer-sity of California encouragement that all "employees take an active role in their community," said spokeswoman Patti Waid Istas.

Representatives for most of the letterwriting politicians said their bosses weren't trying to bully, but to help.

"Congressman Cardoza is interested in any economic development that would help the valley be more prosperous," said Jamie McInerney, his spokesman. The Crows Landing business park could bring thousands of jobs, Kamilos has said.

Also, Cardoza's help to secure federal money for the rail line to Oakland would be essential, McInerney said.

Denham and Galgiani said their letter about the golf town did not take sides but was intended to remind Merced supervisors to consider funding sources for the Hilmar bypass. Fees could be extracted from developers.

"It is my understanding that some may have mistaken our letter as support for a particular development project," Galgiani said in a written statement. "It is not our desire to become involved in local land-use decisions, but to encourage our local partners to keep in mind the effects on transportation issues involving state highways."

Financial disclosure forms show that Denham's 2006 re-election campaign received six donations worth a total of $7,250 from four companies on the Turlock golf team, including Warda's firm and JKB Homes.

"His actions as state senator are done with his constituents in mind, regardless of contributions received or not received," said Stacey Hendrickson, Denham's spokeswoman.

Turlock Mayor John Lazar joined the parade of letter writers. In an interview this week, he noted that many Turlock residents helped found or belong to the country club, and the new town might call on Turlock for water or sewer services.

"I think it's wise and good planning to allow that study to come forward," Lazar said. "Why not have the information? We shouldn't be ostriches and have our heads in the sand."

Some golf town opponents, though, say they are troubled by the high-powered political dynamic, something they haven't had to wrestle with before.

"Somebody wanted this project to go through so seriously that they did a lot of prework that normally would not be done," said Jeani Ferrari, founder of the Turlock-based Farmland Working Group. "They're getting support from people who have nothing to do with local land use."

Officers with the Valley Land Alliance, an advocacy group based in Merced County, and the Merced County Farm Bureau said the vote could derail a growth plan being developed by nearby Hilmar.

"To have a parallel process will greatly impact the final look of their community, and that's disturbing," said Diana Westmoreland Pedrozo, the farm bureau's chief executive. "This is not good, thoughtful, careful planning."

Warda said his studies will only contribute to Hilmar's plan and to the county's general plan update. The letters he coaxed from Kang, Shirvani, Lazar and state representatives are similar, he said, to Kelsey's requests to state officials that they fix Highway 165, a state road.

"While this might be a new phenomenon, there is nothing nefarious about it," Warda said.

Simon, the longtime Stanislaus County supervisor, said he remains skeptical of influence peddling.

"If it's successful," he said, "I suppose it could be used again and again. Until it backfires."

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.

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