Hilmar growth plan wins backing

HILMAR -- The city's municipal advisory council has endorsed a plan meant to guide the small agricultural community's growth during the next 20 years.

An approval from the 10-member residents' panel is a major step forward for the plan, now five years in the making.

"I think some people wanted to see more growth and some wanted to see less," council member David Anderson said. "But I think we all see this as an appropriate compromise."

Besides setting an overall vision for Hilmar's future, the 120-page plan discusses specifics ranging from housing and economic growth to water supply, schools, public safety, what land to develop and what land to preserve.

County officials have been working since 2003 to develop the blueprint, relying heavily on input from residents and business owners in the northern Merced County community of 5,000.

Overall, the plan calls for preserving Hilmar's agriculture-based economy, as well as its small-town atmosphere.

More amenities sought

But it also seeks change. It says Hilmar should work to become a pedestrian-friendly community with more shopping, better roads and a wider variety of housing options. Specifically, it calls for a vibrant downtown, a communitywide system of bike paths and walking trails, seven new parks, two new elementary schools and several new business parks.

Though the municipal advisory council's endorsement isn't legally required for the plan's ultimate approval by the Board of Supervisors, county officials said they only wanted to move forward with a plan the community supports."They're the ones that live there," Bobby Lewis, the county's planning director, said. "So their input is extremely important."

The council voted unanimously this month to support the plan, though a handful of suggestions came with the endorsement. Foremost, the council said building a Highway 165 bypass around Hilmar must remain a top priority.

Right now, 165 runs through Hilmar's downtown. It's the only major road across the community and has become more and more congested in recent years. It's also heavily used by big-rig drivers.

Though the plan says the 165 bypass is essential, funding for the project is far from secure.

"We want to make sure it's not forgotten," Anderson said. "It's so important for the people of Hilmar."

Though growth is inevitable, keeping Hilmar's small-town atmosphere was the No. 1 priority residents named during community meetings and in written surveys collected by the county in 2004.

Supervisor Deidre Kelsey, who represents Hilmar, has said she supports the plan in its current version. It strikes the balance between progress and preservation, she has said.

The plan is expected to go to the Planning Commission soon for its recommendation. It will then go to the Board of Supervisors, which wields final say over whether it's approved.

The county last adopted a community plan for Hilmar in 1982, though it was only about 10 pages long. Planning officials have called that plan "woefully inadequate."

The new plan was released in December. The county still is accepting feedback from the public.

To read Hilmar's draft community plan and its environmental reviews in their entirety, go to www.co.merced.ca.us/planning/hilmarplan.html, or contact the Merced County Planning Department at 385-7654.