Stanislaus County answers Modesto mayor’s offer for Wood Colony pledge

Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh said about a week ago that Modesto would stay out of Wood Colony – the close-knit, more-than-century-old farming community west of Highway 99 – if Stanislaus County would do the same.

County CEO Stan Risen has taken up the mayor’s challenge.

Risen has sent a letter to interim City Manager Jim Holgersson asking to discuss the mayor’s proposal not to approve development in the colony.

“I would be very willing to discuss what formal process you and I and our respective elected bodies can prepare to canonize an agreement reflecting our mutual ‘pledge’ of respect for this agricultural area,” Risen wrote in his Sept. 25 letter.

Modesto has faced criticism from scores upon scores of Wood Colony residents and their supporters since a majority of the City Council voted in January to include about 900 acres of Wood Colony in an update to the city’s general plan, which serves as a blueprint for how the city will grow and develop.

City officials have said Modesto needs the land for big-box stores, business parks and other development along Highway 99. Marsh made his offer at his Sept. 20 town hall meeting and repeated something he has said before: Modesto put Wood Colony in its general plan to protect it from the county.

Wood Colony residents have said their fight is with the city, not the county. And in his letter, Risen refuted what Marsh said: “Stanislaus County has no development plans for the Wood Colony area beyond those that promote, support and enhance agriculture as the predominant land use.”

The county has zoned the land for agriculture and has approved development – such as a nut huller and veterinary hospital – that supports agriculture.

Marsh’s statement rankled county Supervisor Terry Withrow, whose district includes Wood Colony. “We are tired of being thrown under the bus,” he said. “The mayor continues to tell everyone that the county is the one (with development plans). ... Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Marsh declined to respond and to provide the details of his proposal, saying he wanted to save those for the city-county discussions.

“Part of what I’m willing to offer is that we will put that on the shelf and not implement any part of the general plan (for Wood Colony) if the county does not allow any development of any sort,” he said Monday. He added that includes agricultural-related development.

Marsh’s offer comes as farmland advocates get ready to turn in a petition drive to qualify an urban limit boundary for the November 2015 ballot. Former Councilman Denny Jackman expects to turn in more than 10,000 signatures Wednesday at the City Clerk’s Office.

Jackman and other proponents of the Stamp Out Sprawl initiative need the signatures of 8,931 city voters to qualify their measure for the ballot. If it passes, Stamp Out Sprawl would draw a boundary around much of Modesto and require a citywide vote when Modesto considers approving development beyond the boundary.

Wood Colony would be outside the boundary, and protecting the farming enclave was one of the reasons for the initiative.

Modesto is conducting an environmental review of the general plan changes approved by the City Council. Planning Manager Patrick Kelly said in an email that he expects the plan will come back to the council in mid-2016 for possible adoption.