Garth Stapley

Questions over Modesto’s urban growth, Wood Colony could surface in 2020 election

Garth Stapley
Garth Stapley

Should Modesto, hungry for new jobs and homes, swallow part of Wood Colony?

That could become the most controversial piece of a revived effort to establish an urban limit around Modesto.

It’s early in the process, with details undecided and not yet shared publicly. But it’s important enough that we all should be on the lookout.

Many will remember the huge, hairy political fight a few years ago over Wood Colony, an agricultural hamlet west of Modesto. In 2014, hundreds of Wood Colony people strongly protested the city’s general plan update proposing large business parks on their land. Such would threaten their farms and rural homes, they said, and the city was forced to retreat.

The next year brought Measure I, a citizens’ initiative that might have forever ended Modesto’s designs on Wood Colony. Measure I would have drawn an urban limit around most of Modesto beyond which it could not grow without a vote of the people — a high bar praised by slow-growthers while dreaded by those who see the city’s prosperity linked to expansion.

Opinion

The 2015 Measure I campaign also became a public brawl, drawing stiff opposition from the Modesto Chamber of Commerce, the building industry and public safety unions who warned against stunted economic opportunities and higher taxes. Proponents’ most memorable argument was simply protecting Wood Colony.

A portion of Salida, east of Sisk Road and south of Pirrone Road, would be fair game for Modesto, upsetting some Salidans but drawing far less vocal opposition. The rest of Measure I’s hard line north of Modesto would run down Kiernan Avenue, saving everything between Kiernan and the Stanislaus River for farms; soil there easily allows irrigation to seep down, recharging our aquifer.

Many were surprised when Measure I failed, by a mere 215 votes. That left Wood Colony in limbo — neither permanently protected, nor under immediate threat of annexation and development.

Denny Jackman, frontman for Measure I and the face of most farmland-protection efforts in these parts for four decades, did not exactly fade into the sunset. He vowed to bring a similar measure before voters for another try, and recently shared his latest plan with all seven City Council members. A few days ago, he sent them a formal proposal with a request for another citywide vote in fall 2020, on the same ballot as the presidential election.

“The whole purpose of an urban limit is to start to stop,” Jackman said, referring to the contagion of sprawl.

Meanwhile, those who stand to make a bunch of money developing Wood Colony, and other areas on Modesto’s margins, also have been quietly bending ears on the council. They dearly want to preserve Modesto’s right to someday creep west of Highway 99 onto about 700 acres near Beckwith Road, essentially the gateway to Wood Colony.

Mayor Ted Brandvold, with other council members at his shoulder, has become a mediator, engaging with Jackman, a former Modesto councilman himself, in negotiations of sorts.

Jackman’s current proposal would leave all of Wood Colony out of Modesto. What would it take to draw in those 700 acres?

The city is happy to promise agland preservation, Brandvold says, but also needs more jobs and new housing. Fixing firm limits could provide certainty to everyone, including builders who are happy to follow the rules once they’re known.

“It’s like we’ve been in a cold war for, how long? Wouldn’t it be nice to put this to bed?” the mayor said.

The council has some bargaining power because it can place a measure on the ballot with a simple council vote. That would save Jackman and his supporters all the time and effort of gathering signatures to force a ballot vote, not to mention the $150,000 or so such an effort might cost.

Jackman wants to see a formal counterproposal before committing to a course of action.

So do Wood Colony folks. Many will accept no version that features any urbanization west of 99; a few want just the opposite, understandably hoping for a return on their land investments.

Part of the power Jackman holds over the council is the threat that he’ll mobilize his troops and begin gathering signatures without input from the council. But that would take months, and he’s running out of time if he hopes for a vote next year, when voter turnout should be great.

So this debate soon could take place in public.

Hold onto your seats. It could be a wild ride.

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Garth Stapley is The Modesto Bee’s Opinions page editor. Before this assignment, he worked 25 years as a Bee reporter, covering local government agencies and the high-profile murder case of Scott and Laci Peterson.
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