Committee sets policy for 320-acres in southwest portion of Exeter

By Reggie Ellis

City Planner Greg Collins gets several calls each week from developers who have their eye on a 320-acre block of land between Visalia Road and Chestnut Street along Belmont Road.

But for now, he tells them all not to bother, that is until Exeter has finished planning the future of the area.

"The idea of this committee is unique to the Valley," Collins said. "Hopefully we can solve more problems than we create before we start developing. Exeter is on everyone's radar because it has a good reputation and people want to be here."

The Southwest Specific Plan committee was formed last year and held its first meeting on Nov. 18. The purpose of the committee is to get the public involved with creating policies that are consistent with what the city wants, avoid urban sprawl, create affordable housing, develop a new school site and a new park site, and minimize impacts on the environment. The committee consists of representatives from the city council, school district, planning commission, business owners and concerned citizens. The group has tentatively been meeting on the third Thursday of each month following Exeter Planning Commission meetings at city hall, and will meet again on Feb. 17.

"There is often not a lot of public involvement on the formation of these types of plans," Collins said. "This level of involvement and the strategies and standards we will use are what make [the committee] unique."

At its most recent meeting on Jan. 20, Collins told the committee to consider three key elements in the planning of the area -- air quality, design elements and residential architectural styles. Collins said there isn't much the committee can do to reduce the use of cars as residents' main mode of transportation. He said their efforts would concentrate on traffic flow and linking destinations. Collins said roundabouts could be used to keep traffic moving, which reduces stopping and starting and, in turn, reduces vehicle emissions.

Collins said 74 percent of Exeter residents use a car as their main source of transportation. Only 17 percent of those carpool. Seventy-two percent of residents commute to work traveling an median of 23 minutes one-way. However, Exeter does have public transportation. Dial-A-Ride is frequently used by senior citizens to travel within the community but other segments of the population do not use it. Exeter and Farmersville are part of a Visalia City Coach bus route that makes a round trip every 90 minutes. But again, not many residents use it.

"People are going to drive their own cars and I don't see that changing," Collins said.

So, the only solution is to keep traffic flowing. Collins said roundabouts have worked in Europe for decades and have been used in several cities in California, such as Santa Barbara and Davis.

"If you reduce stopping you increase speeding," Councilmember Leon Ooley said. "We need to control speeding while we reduce stopping because we already have a problem with people driving too fast [on Belmont and Visalia roads]."

Collins said the streets and street corners would be narrowed to encourage slowing down at intersections. Collins also suggested building less culdesacs and block-wall subdivisions with only one entrance and exit. Using the example of visiting neighbors in an adjacent subdivision, Collins said currently most people have to exit their subdivision, drive down the street and around the corner to enter another subdivision instead of having streets that run through both subdivisions, a common complaint from emergency response personnel.

The plan will also include a new elementary school. The Exeter Union School District already owns land within the project area in preparation for continued growth at the existing schools. A commercial development including a drive-thru Starbucks, Citrus Plaza, was approved by the planning commission a half-hour earlier.

Collins said the committee is close to putting firm planning policies onto paper. This document will serve as a guideline for developers, both commercial and residential, to make sure the area does not have competing themes or uses.

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