Initiative aiming to protect Modesto farmland takes step forward

Juan Arreola rakes walnuts Wednesday morning, Oct. 1, 2014, at a ranch at Dakota and North avenues in the Wood Colony area of Modesto, Calif.
Juan Arreola rakes walnuts Wednesday morning, Oct. 1, 2014, at a ranch at Dakota and North avenues in the Wood Colony area of Modesto, Calif. jlee@modbee.com

The proponents of placing an urban boundary around Modesto to protect prime farmland took a big step Wednesday toward bringing their proposal before voters.

Supporters of the Stamp Out Sprawl initiative needed to turn in the signatures of 8,931 Modesto voters to the city clerk’s office Wednesday to qualify the initiative for the November 2015 ballot. They said they turned in petitions with the signatures of 10,507 voters.

The signatures will need to be counted and verified before the proposal is brought before the City Council to place on the ballot.

Stamp Out Sprawl calls for drawing an urban growth line around most of Modesto. The line would roughly follow Morse Road on the west, Kiernan Avenue-Claribel Road on the north and Whitmore Avenue and the Tuolumne River on the south. The line is C-shaped and pushes growth to the east of Modesto along Claus Road, where the farmland is of lesser quality.

Modesto would need voter approval before it moves forward with commercial, industrial and residential development outside the boundary.

Wednesday also was a victory for Wood Colony – the close-knit, more-than-century-old farming community west of Highway 99 – and its supporters because the colony is outside the proposed boundary.

Colony residents have been fighting Modesto for months over its plans to include colony land for big-box retailers, business parks and similar development in its long-term growth plans. Hundreds have turned out at City Council meetings to express their dissent and are frustrated because they believe council members have not listened to them.

Former councilman and farmland advocate Denny Jackman said one reason he started the SOS initiative is the council’s decision to include the colony in Modesto’s growth plans. Colony residents have been among the volunteers who gathered signatures.

Stamp Out Sprawl’s other proponents include longtime Modesto hydrologist Vance Kennedy and colony farmer and Modesto Irrigation District board member Jake Wenger.

Kennedy said the urban boundary is critical because not only does it protect some of the best farmland in the nation but it protects critical and productive groundwater recharge areas.

Wenger said colony residents felt blindsided by the city’s plans and that requiring a citywide vote for growth beyond the urban boundary would prevent sprawl. It also would give colony residents and everyone else more of a voice in the city’s growth decisions.

He added that those seeking development beyond the urban boundary would need to do their homework first and then make their pitch to the voters. Wenger said it’s been difficult to follow what Modesto has proposed because the city’s plans have changed several times.

“I don’t know how many (development) maps we’ve seen on this Wood Colony thing,” he said. “I’ve lost track on all of them. We won’t see that (with an urban boundary). There is no bait and switch.”

Jackman said he is confident that the SOS campaign collected enough signatures to qualify for the ballot and that voters will approve it. He said the campaign used volunteers and two signature-gathering firms to collect signatures. The firms verified the signatures were of registered Modesto voters.

He said Modesto voters have a history of supporting growth-limiting measures, and polling done over the years shows growing support to protect farmland. Wenger said he expects the campaign to convince voters to pass the initiative will begin in February or March.

City Clerk Stephanie Lopez said she and her staff will count the signatures to ensure there are at least 8,931 of them. She expects to finish by the end of the week.

Lopez said if there are enough signatures, she will forward the petitions to the county election office to verify that the signers are registered voters who live in the city. If the petitions pass that test, Lopez said she expects to bring the initiative to the City Council this year to place it on the November 2015 ballot.

To learn more about the proposed urban growth boundary, go to www.stampoutsprawl.com.