Is Exeter growing too fast?

By Reggie Ellis

If you needed any evidence that many Exeter residents are concerned with the city's recent growth and proposed future growth, the April 12 Exeter City Council meeting served as proof.

Two residents coincidentally chose the same meeting to voice their concerns to the council during what is normally a very quiet public comment period - and one of them brought a petition with 150 signatures of other residents who share those concerns.

"I work on what used to be a plum orchard and alfalfa field and I live on what used to be an orange orchard," said Stan Dillon, a third-grade teacher at Rocky Hill Elementary School and Exeter native, in an interview after the meeting. "I have never spoken to the council before but I think it is the city government's responsibility [to act] if we are going to keep our small town charm."

Last year was a record year for building permits in Exeter. The city processed 108 residential building permits in 2004, a 41% increase from the previous year, or a population increase of about 250 people. That's almost triple the number of residential building permits processed just two years ago.

City Planner Greg Collins said the 2.5% growth in 2003 is well within the 2.9% growth rate spelled out in the city's 20-year General Plan approved by the city council in 2003. Other Valley cities have far exceeded Exeter percentage growth. In 2003 Farmersville grew 5.1%, Fowler 5.5%, Kerman 6%, Kingsburg 5.7%, Selma 5.8%.

"We are growing gracefully, especially for the Valley," Collins said. "We have quality and well designed growth that will serve as a model to other communities."

But with a growing population comes increased traffic. According to the Exeter Police Department the number of traffic accidents has steadily increased the last six years. Non-injury, injury and fatal accidents were all up from 2003 (see other story). Many of the non-injury accidents were fender-benders involving cars coming in and out of the Redwood Plaza shopping center on Visalia Road as traffic to and from Visalia increases.

"It's not all bad," Dillon said. "What the chamber and mural team did to revive the downtown was a real plus for the city and probably saved the city. On the other hand, all of our success has attracted affluent residents which attracts crime."

Crime did not change much from two years ago to last year, but 2003 had one of the highest crime rates in the last seven years. Burglaries are at a four-year high and thefts are at a six-year high.

Dillon said growing up he remembers when there was only one stop sign on Pine Street in downtown. Now there are stop signs at every intersection. "Pretty soon it will be like Monterey where all of the downtown streets are one-way and you won't be able to park along the curb anywhere."

Oren Hartley, also an Exeter native, told the council he had already secured 150 signatures on a petition against developing 320 acres on the southwest part of town.

"Only 10 of the people I asked did not want to sign the petition," said, who lives next to the proposed development block. "And of those 10 only three were in favor of expansion. Even if this were going in on the other side of town I would still be against it."

Known as the South West Specific Plan, the area - located between Visalia Road and Glaze Avenue to the north and south and Belmont Road and Elberta Avenue to the east and west - will be developed in the next 10-20 years. An oversight committee has been meeting since last November to set strict guidelines for design and development and will be submitting the plan to the Exeter Planning Commission in June. The plan already includes a retail plaza, a new school site, four neighborhood parks and a walking trail.

Hartley said the development may say 10-20 years, but at the current rate of development, it may be build-out in five.

"I've never wanted to live anywhere but Exeter and I don't want to leave here to find another Exeter," Hartley said. "Even if it's another 200 people it all affects us one way or another. You already have to park a block away to attend Fall Festival. When it is it going to be too many people to fit in city park. That will change the atmosphere from friendly to violent. When is enough, enough."

Collins said it has been the council's direction to limit growth and Exeter uses several strategies unique to the Valley that have done a good job of it. In addition to the Southwest Specific Plan Committee, which no other city has used a combination of city officials, business leaders and residents, Exeter also has a 10-year annexation line that prevents developers from pressing the city beyond its planned growth.

"We will do what we can to infill and redevelop existing property to prevent sprawl," Collins said, citing the Cody Motel, which was converted to senior apartments at the corner of Palm and G streets, and Maple Place, a unique plan for single-family homes currently under construction in a former blighted area at Maple and H streets. "We really have a handle on how and where growth will take place and what it will look like."

To avoid stretching city services, Collins said the council has also approved increasing the city's development impact fees which developers pay when they submit building permits. Those fees pay for improved crosswalks, signal lights, building new parks and bike paths and adequate parking.

"These are just observations," Dillon said. "It don't think it is anyone's fault and I will never turn on Exeter. But I don't think we should do a whole lot more [in growth]."

Collins said even it the council decided on a no growth policy, there is always natural growth, or more people being born than have died.

"If we shut down building permits today we would still grow 1% a year," Collins said.

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