The largest development project in Tuolumne County in decades could wind up as a referendum on the March 2002 ballot.
On a 3-2 vote in mid-September, the county Board of Supervisors approved the 1,500-unit, 1,105-acre Mountain Springs subdivision about two miles south of Sonora. Project opponents immediately began work on a referendum of the general plan amendment, rezoning and development agreement. A group called Voters Choice on Mountain Springs had 30 days to collect 2,011 valid signatures to force a vote — and the campaigning had begun even before petitions hit the streets.
At first blush, the battle appears to be the classic no-growth-versus-slow-growth confrontation that is so common in the Sierra Nevada foothills. However, this controversy has some different shadings. The opponents are not necessarily strong environmentalists willing to fight any project. The proponents are mostly local investors, and their project has some characteristics that set it apart from similar retirement villages.
Shortly after Tuolumne Investors was first organized in 1987, the group purchased about 1,000 acres of pasture and timberland outside Sonora that was under Williamson Act contract. Tuolumne Investors did not renew the Williamson Act contract and built a golf course under use permit in 1990. The investors always had eye toward a large development once the 10-year Williamson Act protections expired, general partner Kim Daters said.
A county general plan update adopted in 1996 identified the area south of Sonora (the county's only incorporated city) as a new community separate from both Sonora and nearby Jamestown. In 1997, Tuolumne Investors submitted an application for Mountain Springs. The developer proposed 2,076 homes to be built in clusters around the golf course, as well as 35,000 square feet of commercial space, a hotel and conference center, and community recreation facilities.
"Our intent was to create something more than Tuolumne County has ever seen before with regard to an extensively planned community," said John Wilbanks, principal with RRM Design Group in Oakdale, who designed Mountain Springs. "It certainly is a different pattern of development for Tuolumne County."
Tuolumne County, like numerous others in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada or southern Cascade Mountains, has seen extensive development of 1- to 5-acre ranchettes. Tuolumne County's largest subdivisions were built during the 1960s and 70s, with many houses starting out as weekend cabins or retirement homes. The county grew rapidly during the 1970s and 80s, its population roughly doubling in 20 years to 48,400 in 1990, according to the census. But growth slowed to about 1% annually during the 1990s, partly because of a downturn in the timber and mining industries.
During the general plan update and the county's early processing of the Mountain Springs application, little public opposition arose, said Bev Shane, Tuolumne County Community Development Director. But by the time the Planning Commission considered the project and accompanying environmental impact report this spring, scores of opponents had made themselves known. They raised questions about water supply, traffic, noise, growth inducements and a change in community character. The Planning Commission voted 4-1 to recommend approval of a 1,750-unit project despite the objections. The Board of Supervisors conducted lengthy hearings in August and September before voting 3-2 for the project on September 11. Supervisors further reduced the project to 1,500 units.
"It was one of the most exhaustive planning processes I've ever been involved in in my 22 years as a planner," said RRM's Wilbanks.
Shane said questions about the project have been answered in the EIR, and she noted the county included hundreds of conditions in the lengthy development agreement. A study mandated by Tuolumne Utilities District found that twice as much water as the project needs and adequate sewage treatment capacity are available, Shane said. But the developer must help fund new effluent storage facilities for use during wet months, when land disposal is not possible. Two roads link the project to Sonora and the developer must provide extensive improvements. The area around the project is mostly pasture and 3- to 5-acre ranchettes. Those property owners will undoubtedly be affected, but not all of them oppose Mountain Springs, Shane added.
The developer also has agreed to pay additional fees for arts, parks and schools, and to build a new fire station, the operation of which future residents will help fund. None of these items were required by county ordinance, Shane said.
But the Voters Choice organization is unconvinced. One of the group's founders, Bob Dambacher, said he does not believe the water study or promises of improving wastewater facilities.
"We get a lot of rain, but most of our water has been taken by the City of San Francisco, and the valley cities of Turlock and Modesto," Dambacher said. "There are so many things that are unanswered."
As for development fees, Dambacher dismissed the $20 million worth of fees and off-site improvements as minor compared to the value of the project.
The development agreement calls for phasing new homes over 12 years and it ties the provision of certain improvements and commercial construction to the number of building permits. Housing is proposed to be a mix of single-family and shared-wall development that has yet to be determined. Houses are proposed to be in clusters so that 45% of the 1,105 acres will be open space, parks or golf course, said Daters, of Tuolumne Investors. Half the homes will be restricted to seniors (age 55 and up), which proponents contend will reduce traffic.
But Dambacher said the project is simply too large. "I don't have a problem with them putting 500 homes on that 1,000 acres, but not 1,500." Building that size community, including the proposed commercial component, will only increase pressure to develop the two miles of lightly developed real estate between Mountain Springs and Sonora, he argued. "Don't build two cities right next to each other," Dambacher said.
Although Mountain Springs is similar to successful golf course retirement developments elsewhere, Wilbanks said it is more self-contained than most. The planned commercial center will have enough space for a small market, other retail shops and some professional offices. Plus, sidewalks and pathways will encourage walking, he said. County officials are excited about the conference center and 200-room hotel, which is large for Tuolumne County.
Bev Shane, Tuolumne County Community Development Department, (209) 533-5633.
Kim Daters, Tuolumne Investors, (209) 532-2354.
John Wilbanks, RRM Design Group, (209) 847-1794.
Voters Choice on Mountain Springs website: www.voteonmountainsprings.org