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Golf developments face critics

SONORA — People either really like living on golf courses, or developers think they should.

The homes-links combination is about to explode in Tuolumne County, which could become home to five major courses surrounded by subdivisions. That doesn't count two nearby championship courses, ringed by homes, in neighboring Calaveras County.

The latest proposal in Tuolumne County drew a roomful of critics who politely but firmly blasted Mountain Springs' second attempt to turn its course into a community.

"If we are not the investors, why do we need it?" Dolores Boutin said at Monday's meeting. "Why do we have to pay to allow them to make an economic killing?"

About 90 mostly frowning people attended the public comment session. It wasn't hosted by any government panel, but was set up by the county to gather opinions on environmental studies for Mountain Springs' controversial 1,063-acre build-up.

"Our rural quality of life in the county is rapidly disappearing," Boutin added, echoing opinions voiced by nearly all speakers, except for Mountain Springs' lawyer.

Mountain Springs is only one of several golf town proposals either pending or already embraced since Pine Mountain Lake Golf Course appeared in eastern Tuolumne County in 1969. That development has 4,000homes.

South Shore Club, Lake Don Pedro — An 18-hole course ringed by 850 homes, approved in 1988 but never built. Developers recently revived the project and await a county review of building permits.

West Side Property, Tuolumne City — An 18-hole course and 100 homes, approved in the early 1990s but never built. The Tuolumne band of Mewuk Indians recently acquired this project and is gathering grading and building permits.

Grand Yosemite National Golf Course and Wetlands Preserve, Yosemite junction where Highway 120 splits off from Highway 108 — An 18-hole course, 50houses, 300 time-share condos and a 150-room hotel. In the early 1990s, Tuolumne County supervisors approved plans for a course and 533homes, but the project drew criticism and was dropped. Now the landowner is moving ahead with environmental studies and going through the approval process again.

The business model of building a golf course with an idea for eventual homes is not new. Greenhorn Creek near Angels Camp and Saddle Creek in Copperopolis realized the dream when both opened in 1995. Both hope to continue building hundreds of upscale houses around their courses.

Other developments in works

The Turlock Golf & Country Club is pushing a golf town with 3,500 homes on 1,600 acres around its course. Just down Highway 165, Stevinson Ranch wants to surround itself with 5,000 houses.

To the west, Diablo Grande developers continue erecting upscale homes around its pair of championship courses, planned to be a 33,000-acre resort.

"It's a country club lifestyle that a lot of people like," Bev Shane, Tuolumne County's community development director, said of the golf course developments.

Homes bordering fairways or greens guarantee you won't have pesky neighbors behind you. Deer and rabbits provide frequent diversions.

Some projects, such as the Tuolumne City and Don Pedro plans, attract little opposition.

"I think a lot of people in the Lake Don Pedro area look forward to having additional development," Shane said. "They see it as an enhancement, not a detriment."

But Mountain Springs has been a lightning rod since developers first floated a proposal for 2,076 homes soon after the course sprouted in 1990.

Strident opposition prompted developers to pare plans to 1,500homes, which county supervisors narrowly approved on a 3-2 vote. But critics in 2001 quickly gathered 7,000 signatures to force a countywide vote that became moot when developers withdrew their plans to avoid defeat.

After the county finished traffic studies about a year ago, the developer resubmitted plans for the development. Those plans must be approved by the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors. Shane expects it to be considered in October at the earliest.

Voters Choice, a group formed to fight Mountain Springs, remained active and continues monitoring government meeting and informing members in regular mass e-mails. Some members spoke against Mountain Springs on Monday, six years after their initial opposition.

"We are asked to bite the bullet because they really, really want to build this subdivision," Dave Bonnot said. He said mitigation measures, designed to lessen the project's impact, amount to developers saying, "'If we do this little thing here, we can say we tried and move on.'"

Sharon Marovich, representing the Tuolumne Heritage Committee, noted that county officials already are processing 3,000 home requests in various stages of approval.

"The loss of an area's rural landscape is a social change," she said.

'We don't want to be urban'

Doris Grinn said the foothills should learn from mistakes in the valley. "When the county only sees a residential development economy as a strategy, we end up with a lot bigger headaches," Grinn said. "I think people are trying to say, 'We don't want to be urban.'"

Bruce Watson lives on Lime Kiln Road, which would bear the brunt of traffic to the golf town. He predicted congestion would be "just horrendous," a view shared by EDAW, the consulting firm that studied Mountain Springs' proposal.

Whit Manley, the developers' Sacramento attorney, said they want to fix and widen Lime Kiln "out of the gate, before the project gets under way." He reminded the grumbling crowd that his clients paid for the studies but had no control over them and did not agree with some parts.

"This project is not attempting to get a free ride, not at all," Manley said.

He noted that Mountain Springs has offered money to permanently preserve farmland in other parts of Tuolumne County, perhaps through easements held by a trust. "That wouldn't create new ag land," Manley said. "But acquisition elsewhere would help."

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

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