Locals question Yokohl development

By Reggie Ellis

A month ago a three-person panel interviewed several Exeter residents about the possibility of building a retirement community or city in Yokohl Valley east of Exeter.

Bill Ostrem, president of Eastlake, a subsidiary of the cotton king J.G. Boswell Company, wanted to know how Exeter residents felt about the idea and what they would like to see in the scenic valley. Ostrem told the Valley Voice newspaper he had a "friendly response" from members of the Exeter Chamber of Commerce.

But if you ask almost any chamber member, friendly should not be interpreted as supportive.

"I don't know anyone that is for the idea," said chamber CEO Delora Buckman-Merritt, one of those interviewed by Eastlake.

The Boswell Company is considering developing a master-planned community on the 36,000-acre Boston Ranch, one of the largest private landholdings in the foothills. The land is currently used for cattle grazing by Boswell's Yokohl Valley Cattle Company, 24876 Yokohl Dr.

Eastlake was formed in 1979 when Boswell wanted to develop 3,200 acres of land in San Diego County of the same name. The first resident moved into the community of Eastlake in 1986. According to the Eastlake Visitor/Information Center, there are currently about 6,000 homes in Eastlake. At build-out, estimated in 2010, Eastlake is planned to have approximately 8,900 homes and a population of about 22,000. Its police and fire services are provided by Chula Vista, which has a population of 173,000, nearly double the size of Visalia.

But as one of the largest private landowners in the Western United States, the Boswell Company has been developing land for several decades. Del Webb began construction of Sun City, Ariz. on Boswell-owned property in 1960 and has since created similar communities in 10 states. According to Del Webb, the original Sun City was an upscale retirement community that has since incorporated and has its own fire service. However, it contracts with police service through nearby Peoria. According to the 2000 US Census, Sun City has ballooned to a population of 38,000. While Peoria, Ariz. has grown large enough to absorb the public safety needs of nearby communities, Exeter is not, nor does it want to be a sprawling metropolis.

"They would have to incorporate to make it work," said District 1 Supervisor-elect Allen Ishida of Lindsay. The county's public safety is already stretched thin with the fire department narrowly avoiding massive downstaffing and the sheriff's department barely having enough deputies to cover the state's third largest county geographically. Ambulance companies have overextended their boundaries, emergency room volumes are at critical mass and then there is the ever-present health care crisis.

"I'm not a no growth person," Chamber President Art Zschau said. "You have to have some growth because if you don't grow a little you will die. You have to stay a viable city. But too much growth overnight is not healthy."

Zschau said not even Badger Hill Estates was developed in a year. It took several years to build it up, and more than 20 for Eastlake and Sun City. But unlike those communities, an incorporated city would have to be built at one time to avoid straining county services. And generating that type of growth would exacerbate depletion of natural resources and air pollution problems, and stifle local economies.

"The chamber has worked hard to promote Exeter as a destination for shopping," Buckman-Merritt said. "If this is built those people would likely shop there or in Visalia. They may skip Exeter all together."

Diane Gaynor, a community outreach consultant on the project, interviewed 20 Exeter community leaders. She said most were neither for or against a development in the Yokohl Valley, but were more concerned with how it would "follow the integrity of the land."

"If we do something, they want it to feel compatible with the existing area," Gaynor said. "A lot of people were in favor of a golf course with upscale estate homes, but nothing has even been decided. Everything is still on the table."

Former District 1 Supervisor candidate and Exeter resident Marlene Sario said Boswell is not just interested in turning a profit and invests money into the local communities, such as a $100,000 grant to the Exeter Boys & Girls Club through his foundation in November 2003. "It's a great corporation to work in partnership with," she said.

Sario said the project would bring people living there into the surrounding communities to do their shopping. "I see it as being self sufficient so there will be less impact on the county. I think there are some issues they will have to deal with but they are giving this a lot of thought and really planning ahead."

Ishida described Yokohl Valley as a paradox.

"California Smart Growth says put people on that land [in the foothills] to protect the prime ag land on the Valley floor," he said.

Ag land is protected under a variety of state and county policies, most specifically the Rural Valley Lands Plan, which evaluates each parcel on its agricultural merits through a point system. Growth in the foothills is guided by the Foothill Growth Management Plan. Adopted in 1981, the plan designates corridors acceptable to growth, based on studies conducted under the oversight of a 14-member committee of citizens. Much of Yokohl Valley, from Highway 198 to Myer Avenue falls under the development corridor for a mile to a mile-and-a-half on either side.

"But how do you get those people there to [Highway] 198? Yokohl Valley Road is a narrow, winding road that is impossible to navigate in the fog," Ishida said.

Ishida also said he suspects there is little to no groundwater in the foothills, which means any city built there would require surface water. A recent ruling by a federal judge may ultimately shut down the Friant-Kern Canal which delivers surface water from the San Joaquin River to the entire east side of the San Joaquin Valley from Fresno to Bakersfield. Even with appeals, that decision could be upheld within the 20-year estimate of the development's start date.

"They will need surface water and Boswell owns a lot of water," Ishida said. "He would be the only person who could pull it off."

Gaynor said that instead of Boswell going ahead with a project, he wanted to find out what type of project the area would like to see.

"He didn't have to take that kind of approach and I think a lot of people appreciated that they were included in the discussion," Gaynor said. "There was a great deal of honesty on his part and candid remarks from those we talked to." She said they will be conducting more interviews with surrounding communities in January and will present something to Boswell's board of directors in the spring.

Former mayor and Exeter native Alex Torres said the development would put Tulare County - the orange capitol of the world - on track to be the next Orange County.

"I don't see a benefit to the area," Torres said. "We would no longer have the quality of life that we enjoy. The only oranges in Orange County now are growing in someone's backyard. I didn't move back to this area to see this happen."

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