Modesto will revisit controversy about including Wood Colony in growth map

The Modesto City Council’s decision more than two years ago to include part of Wood Colony – the close-knit unincorporated farming community west of Highway 99 – in the city’s future growth plans as part of amending its general plan ignited its biggest political firestorm in at least a decade.

Council meetings were packed with colony residents and their supporters opposing the city. The council’s decision sparked a backlash that included attempts to remove two council members from office, and farmland advocates put an urban growth limit on the November 2015 ballot to protect the colony and other prime farmland. The measure was narrowly defeated after the Modesto Chamber of Commerce – with help from the city’s two big public safety unions – campaigned against it.

Now city officials are considering a timeout.

They want Modesto to go back to its previous general plan map – the one that has been in place since 1995 and before the controversy of late 2013 and early 2014 – as it completes the routine, noncontroversial work of amending the general plan, such as updating the plan’s master environmental impact report. The plan serves as a long-term guide for where and how a city grows. The amendment is expected to come back to the council for final adoption in about a year.

Then officials want Modesto to embark on its first comprehensive update of its general plan in more than 20 years. That could take about three years and cost $1 million to $2 million.

The update would include discussions about what the boundaries should be for the general plan map. Officials say the update will include the kind of outreach and community involvement that was missing in the amendment process. Many colony residents told council members during the meetings in late 2013 and early 2014 that they felt blindsided by the city.

“It’s a reset,” said Mayor Ted Brandvold, who took office in late February. “I ran on community outreach and collaboration. I just want to reset and restart that process.”

But Modesto may not be able to avoid more controversy. The 1995 map includes roughly 1,000 acres in Wood Colony in what is called the Beckwith Triangle, though the city was not able to get permission for the land to be developed and would not seek such permission during the timeout.

“I understand why they are doing this,” said Lisa Dovichi-Braden, who lives on Beckwith Road in the triangle and has been part of the opposition to the city. “I’m not happy they are not trying to get the Beckwith Triangle out. They are buying time. They think we are all going away, but we are not. We are not going to let our guard down.”

Dovichi-Braden said she and other colony residents believe the best solution is for Modesto to remove the colony from all of its growth maps as soon as possible.

Then there is Salida, the unincorporated town north of Wood Colony. Salida also is in the city’s general plan map, though Modesto was not able to get permission to include Salida in what is called its sphere of influence, a step needed before a city can annex land.

Salida Municipal Advisory Council Chairwoman Katherine Borges repeated her position that Modesto should leave Salida alone. “We just can’t get out of their blasted maps,” she said.

Modesto Planning Manager Patrick Kelly said as part of the timeout the council could remove Wood Colony and Salida from its general plan map. But he cautioned that would not be following good planning practices. He said making such a change should entail at least six months of workshops and other community involvement so everyone – including those landowners who want to be in the map – can weigh in before the council makes a decision.

City officials have said some colony property owners want to be part of the city’s growth plans. But hundreds of those property owners’ neighbors protested at council meetings, fearing once development starts it would not stop.

Brandvold and Councilman Bill Zoslocki, who also is advocating the timeout and using the 1995 map boundaries, said the appropriate time to have the discussion about Wood Colony and Salida is during the comprehensive general plan update. Brandvold said he envisions all of the communities surrounding Modesto taking part in those discussions.

“We got a really strong message from the community that we were not listening regarding boundary changes,” Zoslocki said. “But we will have a better process with more input. We will have a community discussion on what we want to do over the next 40 years.”

Still, former Mayor Garrad Marsh said in January while campaigning against Brandvold in the mayoral runoff election that if he were re-elected he would ask the council to remove Wood Colony and Salida from the general plan. Marsh said the discussion about how those communities fit in the city’s long-term growth plans should take place during a comprehensive general plan update.

The City Council’s Healthy Economy Committee, which is made up of Zoslocki and Council members Jenny Kenoyer and Doug Ridenour, discussed last week the proposal to use the general plan’s 1995 boundaries and unanimously forwarded it to the full council for consideration. Deputy City Manager Brent Sinclair said he expects this to come to the council during the summer.

Three Chamber of Commerce officials attended last week’s meeting. Board members Steve Madison and Craig Lewis supported the proposal, but CEO Cecil Russell cautioned the city could open itself up to more criticism by revisiting the matter.

While the do-over has support of at least two chamber officials, Marsh has accused the chamber and its allies of pushing the city to designate all of Wood Colony for development during the general plan amendment discussions, a claim Russell has denied. But the chamber did advance an economic development plan that included designating a few thousand acres in and around the colony for business parks, though Russell has said those were study areas and the plan included protecting farmland.

Former Councilman and longtime farmland advocate Denny Jackman and colony farmer Jake Wenger said they support the proposal. The two, who were not at the meeting, were among the organizers of Stamp Out Sprawl, the November 2015 ballot measure that called for putting an urban growth line around much of Modesto. The line essentially would have required a citywide vote before development could occur beyond it.

Jackman said preserving farmland has strong support among many residents. He noted that Stamp Out Sprawl was defeated by just 215 votes. It received 11,311 votes in support vs. 11,526 votes against it.

“I think everyone would pretty much agree they (the city) needed a do-over. I think the only option they had is the one they are taking, going back to the old boundaries,” said Wenger, a Modesto Irrigation District board member whose family has farmed in the colony since 1910.

But Wenger said the ideal solution is for Modesto to remove the colony from its growth maps. He has advocated that the city upgrade its road network and grow along Claus Road in east Modesto, where the soil’s of poorer quality and neighboring Riverbank is turning a former Army ammo plant into an industrial park.

In 1996, the Stanislaus Local Agency Formation Commission – which sets cities’ boundaries – denied Modesto’s request to bring part of the Beckwith Triangle into Modesto’s sphere of influence, which is required before land can be annexed by a city.

The commission never considered Modesto’s request to bring all of the triangle into the sphere because of opposition from colony residents. The commission also rejected Modesto’s request to include Salida in its sphere.

Marsh reignited the controversy involving Salida when, in his first state-of-the-city address as mayor in 2012, he made it clear he was serious about exploring the annexation of Salida, saying it was a prime location for large-scale business parks. But a backlash from Salida residents and their supporters ended those talks.

The proposed general plan map approved by the council in early 2014 shrinks the Beckwith Triangle to 220 acres and designates the land for big-box retailers and other commercial development along Highway 99. The map also designates 630 acres along Woodland and Kansas avenues west of Morse Road for business parks. The land is along the proposed route of a realigned Highway 132.

As part of the general plan amendment, the city would seek Stanislaus Local Agency Formation Commission permission to bring the smaller triangle and the business park land into Modesto’s sphere of influence. That would not happen under the proposal to use the 1995 map.

Modesto officials Kelly and Sinclair said if the council chooses to use the 1995 map to complete the general plan amendment, that means the city also would not seek to designate roughly 300 acres for business parks north of Kiernan Avenue and bordered roughly by Dale and Stoddard roads in northwest Modesto.

But the city would seek to have 230 acres in its nearly 20-year-old Kiernan Business Park Specific Plan included in its sphere. That land is south of Kiernan and runs west of the Kaiser Modesto Medical Center to roughly Stoddard.

Borges called seeking to have the 230 acres included in the city’s sphere a “land grab.” She said Salida needs that land for economic development if it were to incorporate.

Modesto plans on notifying landowners affected by the proposal to use its 1995 growth map.

Kevin Valine: 209-578-2316