When Hector Rodriguez retired from U.S. Army Special Forces in 1992, he moved back to the Elderwood area northwest of Woodlake because it provided a place of solace after serving in some of the most stressful and hostile environments in the world.
“Elderwood allowed me to heal from the wounds you can’t see,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez made the emotional statement during a public hearing about a proposed subdivision in the area where he grew up during a March 12 Tulare County Planning Commission meeting. The proposal was to replace 225 acres of citrus with 162 residential homes in 10 phases on the side of the Colvin Mountain. Property owner David Roberts presented a plan to build lots raniging in size from 22,500 square feet to 98,699 square feet. Each lot will have its own septic tank and a community water system is being proposed to provide domestic water and fire protection services. The development, known as Elderwood Heights, is more accurately referred to by locals as Dutch Colony.
Now a rancher with 100 cattle, 200 sheep and 20 horses, Rodriguez said is not only concerned about adding more cars, people and waste but also with a possible increase in crime. He said he knows and trusts his neighbors, many of them farmers and ranchers themselves, but does not trust new residents who may not understand or respect the rural lifestyle of their new homes.
“Elderwood is like a family and we take care of each other,” he said. “I don’t know where [Mr. Roberts] comes from, but where I come from we care about family.”
Rodriguez was one of nine residents to speak against the project at the meeting. Their concerns covered nearly all phases of the project included water supply, septic tanks, traffic, right to farm, noise, air quality, drainage, archaeological, wildlife and the aesthetics of the area.
Stephen Terstegge, a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army, said he looks forward to moving back to the area but only if it retains “the essence of the rural lifestyle that is characterized by beautiful open spaces” he experienced as a child. He said when the Tulare County Board of Supervisors approved its General Plan 2030 Update one of the guiding principles of the document was to limit rural residential development outside of unincorporated communities, hamlets and urban development boundaries near cities.
“The stated intent of the Plan is to avoid the slippery slope of rural development which starts with one subdivision, then unintentionally evolves into an unplanned concentration of the county’s population and becomes a drain on the County’s resources,” he said. “This has happened many times in the past in this county, and we can all think of stark examples of how the rural spaces, without proper planning became something we never intended.”
Longtime resident Bob Pearcy said he was concerned with each lot having its own septic tank. He said these will require imbedding leach lines into solid rock on the hillside. He said there is no guarantee that these won’t fail and if they do the sewage will make its way down the hill going from one property to the next until ultimately soiling the creek.
“If your home site is at the highest portion of the development, you will probably not worry about such things a water runoff, and whether your leach system will affect anyone else, but if you build on a lower site, you’re certainly putting a lot of faith and confidence in all those who are above you.”
Kevin Russell talked about the impact to area with documented paleontological and archeological finds. He said a 10-foot Mammoth tusk was discovered on the Denton Bros. farm on April 1, 1965, one of only five mammoth finds that have been investigated in Tulare County. He then showed Commissioners a mammoth molar to illustrate the fragile nature of the specimens. He said the molar had to be varnished in order to keep it from falling apart. The Denton Mammoth tusk had to wrapped in plaster in order to prevent it from breaking up during the excavation. He said in 1949 a four foot section of tusk was located under the reinforcing bar during the construction of the Friant–Kern Canal. It was broken into pieces in order to not disturb the rebar.
“The pour continued and any further evidence of Mammoths in that location are now under several inches of concrete. Once this ground is disturbed or paved over it cannot be reclaimed.”
Bill Ferry said his great-grandparents moved to Woodlake in 1912 to help build the streets in town. The next year they purchased the property that he grew up on and planted 40 acres of Washington Navels. Ferry Farms celebrated its 100th year anniversary last year. As a Farm manager, licensed Pest Control Advisor and Pest Control Operator, Ferry said he has been spraying farms for 33 years in Tulare County and has only had three complaints of spray drift into nearby homes. But two of those complaints came from homes surrounding the same 20 acre citrus orchard. After the second complaint, Ferry said he stopped spraying three rows on on three sides of the orchard. This eliminated about 4 acres of profitable oranges and ultimately led to the removal of the orchard.
“The people who purchased the property were aware of the adjacent orchard and the right to farm notice, but chose to build their homes anyway,” he said. “Are the agricultural commodities on the North, South, and East going to suffer the same fate of abandoning the adjacent rows bordering this project or leading to the abandonment of the farm land?
Hector Guerrera, chief environmental planner for RMA, said there were feasible mitigations for all of the issues raised by residents and that all of the studies were prepared by qualified experts. He also said none of the studies are considered outdated as there has not been significant changes in the area since they were completed.
Residents’ arguments were heartfelt and well researched, but the commission had already heard them at the Feb. 26 hearing. The turning point in the argument was Attorney Craig Brea. Brea was retained by the Tulare County Citizens For Responsible Growth to speak about the legal issues with the project.
“The question is would this project convert farmland to non-agricultural uses? If the answer is yes, you have to check the box for significant impacts. There are fatal legal flaws in this document.’
He said approving the project would be illegal because it bypassed an Environmental Impact Report, which not only have required more rigorous inspection and analysis by biologists and archeologists, but also would have presented alternative analysis for different types of developments at the location.
“Do we lose environmental resources of a site simply because it has been zoned?” Brea asked rhetorically. “This project is too intense for this site, converts nearly the entire site to antoher use and it way too large of a development for this site.”
The applicant, David Roberts, said he was a second generation farmer and understood the importance of farming. His family bought the property in the 1980s but have been unable to make money farming it. He said by converting the property from ailing citrus groves to new homes it would save the area about 133 million gallons per year.
“This property is not prime farm land and it is no in the Williamson Act,” he said, referring to a tax incentive legislation to retain prime agriculture real estate. “Tulare County grows 350 different types of crops and most can’t be grown on this hill. This is relatively limited farmland.”
David’s brother Rob said the project would have significant economic development benefits in the area, including Woodlake which is a disadvantaged community. He likened the project to Badger Hill Estates, which has 133 lots on a single hilltop.
“Has Badger Hill been detrimental to Exeter? This strikes me as ‘not in my backyard.’”
Commissioner John Elliott motioned to deny the project, saying it was only considered because it falls in line with the County’s Foothill Growth Management Plan.
“The Plan was approved in 1981 and it is not working in 2014,” Elliott said. “[The engineer] made the statement that he is comfortable with this. I am not comfortable with this.”
Elliott’s motion was seconded by Commissioner Charlie Norman who grew up near the area of Dutch Colony. Norman said he was in favor of the economic benefits for Woodlake but said the argument for the development “gets very thin” after that.
“For me this is an urban sprawl issue,” Norman said. “This is a beautiful area and I would not want it in my backyard.”
The vote was 6-0 as Commissioner Bill Whitlach recused himself because he employs one of the residents, Lauri Polly, as his graphic designer. The plan will now move to the Tulare County Board of Supervisors with a recommendation from the Planning Commission to deny the project. No date has been set for the item to appear on the Supervisors’ agenda.