A long-proposed new town in Madera County, north of Fresno, appears to be inching closer to reality. This month, the Madera County Board of Supervisors expects to give final approval to the 1,800-acre River Ranch Estates, a proposed housing subdivision within a designated 15,000-acre growth area known as Rio Mesa.

River Ranch Estates would be the first substantial development of land within the Rio Mesa area plan, which the county adopted in 1995. In March, supervisors endorsed an infrastructure plan, subdivision map, design guidelines and environment impact report for River Ranch Estates. Supervisors postponed final approval until county attorneys prepare findings, which will probably be ready this month.

However, the county's formal approval would only amount to the next step in the process, as litigation over the EIR and the property owners' water rights is almost certain to follow. Madera County Supervisor Frank Bigelow called River Ranch Estates a "powder keg."

Pointing to project opposition from Fresno County, environmentalists, park advocates, farmers, irrigation districts and his city, Fresno City Councilman Brian Calhoun said, "There probably isn't anybody who is happy with what is going on there."

As usual with development of a new area, there are many issues. Foremost in this case are the provision of water for the development, public access to the adjacent San Joaquin River and traffic. The water issue may prove to be the trickiest, as the landowner contends he has rights to all the water he needs from the San Joaquin River. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates Friant Dam, a few miles upstream from the River Ranch Estates site, is assessing the water rights situation and expects to issue an opinion later this year. Irrigation districts and farmers, meanwhile, contend that the landowner's contract with the Bureau of Reclamation greatly limits the uses of water.

During the 1990s, the University of California sought a site in the Central Valley for a new campus. Officials at UC narrowed the finalist sites to three — pasture land near Merced, property 20 miles northeast of Fresno, and Lake Yosemite in Madera County (see CP&DR, June 1995). While UC was making its final selection, Madera County adopted the Rio Mesa area plan, a "conceptual land use plan," for development that could serve a new university, said Madera County Planning Director Dave Herb. The area plan was a public-private effort, with property owners paying most of the planning costs. The plan envisioned up to 30,000 housing units, and extensive retail and office development in three distinct villages. Ultimately, UC chose the Merced site, but Madera County kept Rio Mesa as a designated growth area.

A number of Rio Mesa landowners have talked with the county about development and even started the entitlement process. The process is not easy, though, as the county requires developers to provide infrastructure plans covering some or all of one of the three proposed villages within Rio Mesa. River Ranch Estates landowner Larry Freels and his Central Green Company is the first to complete an infrastructure plan, Herb said.

The infrastructure plan covers all of Central Green's approximately 1,800 acres. At this point, though, Central Green proposes only 1,646 homes on 793 acres. The other 1,000 acres would remain a pistachio orchard for now. The plan tentatively approved by the county calls for a 180-lot subdivision and 40 "out lots" for which maps would have to be submitted in the future.

The Madera County Planning Commission unanimously rejected the River Ranch Estates EIR as inadequate. Central Green appealed that decision, and in March the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously for the EIR and project, at least in concept. Exactly why supervisors overturned their unanimous Planning Commission is unclear. Supervisor Bigelow, who represents the Rio Mesa area, said he did not want to talk about the project until a final decision is made because he did not want to prejudice the public process. Bigelow did note that Rio Mesa is a designated growth area in the county general plan, and "you have to start implementing the general plan." Most recent growth has been around the City of Madera, which is not designated as a growth area, Bigelow said.

No doubt some of the findings that supervisors consider when the project returns for a final vote will address water. Central Green owns a "holding contract" with the Bureau of Reclamation. Central Green attorney Timothy Jones, of Sagaser, Franson & Jones in Fresno, said the holding contract gives the landowner the right to take water from the San Joaquin River. The water currently serves agricultural uses, but the contract does not limit use to farming, Jones said.

"The holding contracts on this river and on other rivers have been used for development for some time," Jones said.

Herb said the holding contract allows the landowner to take as much water as he needs for "domestic and beneficial purposes." Water attorneys have advised the county that the contract is straightforward and solid. It definitely is enough to satisfy the state requirement of proving a that 20-year water supply exists to serve a large development proposal, Herb said.

Other people see a murky water picture. John Renning, water rights officer for the Bureau's mid-Pacific region, said holding contracts were signed during the 1940s, when the federal government was acquiring water rights for the Central Valley Project's Friant Division, which includes Friant Dam, the Friant-Kern Canal and the Madera Canal. The contracts do not specify the amount of water to which the owner is entitled, Renning said. They only require that water be used for "agricultural and domestic purposes." Renning said the contracts are ambiguous because when they were signed, the area was sparsely populated and not even heavily farmed. No one anticipated the Central Valley's modern day land use issues.

"We haven't finalized what our position is," Renning said. "We need to work out exactly what can be done under those contracts and what type of review process [is needed]. We're certainly not intending to be any type of impediment to urban development in that area. But we need to establish what the rights of the United States are."

The Madera Irrigation District (MID), a CVP contractor, worries that letting development go forward based on a holding contract would be a bad precedent that could threaten farmers' water. "This impacts districts from Chowchilla to Bakersfield that rely on the Friant water supply," MID General Manager Stephen Ottemoeller said.

Holding contracts do not precisely determine what rights the landowner has, Ottemoeller said, and no court has adjudicated the water rights. Furthermore, Central Green proposes commercial development that would not fall under the "domestic purposes" provision, he contended. And Central Green proposes pumping water from the river to serve land that has not been irrigated with river water in the past, which is not allowed, Ottemoeller contended.

The irrigation district has asked for a contractual cap on the amount of water the development uses. Jones countered that Central Green is willing to implement best water management practices, but is unwilling to limit its use to an amount controlled by MID. (The bad blood between Central Green and MID extends to at least the 1990s, when Central Green sued MID claiming that surface and subsurface flooding caused by the Madera Canal damaged Central Green's pistachio orchards. The case, Central Green Co. v. United States, (2001) 121 S.Ct. 1005, made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ordered the district court to consider Central Green's claims.)

Another concern is River Ranch Estate's impact on the planned 22-mile-long parkway along the San Joaquin River from Friant Dam to Highway 99. "It doesn't provide the river buffers that are required, or the public access," said David Koehler, executive director of the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust. The county should require development to be clustered away from the river for the sake of public access and wildlife, he said. Furthermore, the county should require more detailed infrastructure planning, especially for stormwater drainage, he added.

Fresno Councilman Calhoun, who also sits on the San Joaquin River Conservancy board, agreed with Koehler. The developer and Madera County make promises about the parkway, but there are no guarantees in the plan, said Calhoun, who added traffic concerns to the mix.

"The only jobs they've got are in the City of Fresno. There are no jobs in Madera" Calhoun said. That means increased traffic on Highway 41, yet "there are no plans for mitigation on Highway 41," he said.

Jones and Herb defended the project and Madera County's planning. "It's going to be a first-class development once it's done," Jones said.

"I think the detractors are really not being fair to the developer and his efforts to accommodate their concerns. … Part of the process is people getting over the notion that there is going to be development on that property."

Herb said the county went out of its way to ensure the public has access to the bluffs above the river and to the river itself. The county agrees with the concept of a river trail and wants to see it built, he said.

As for traffic, Herb said, projects in Fresno have contributed traffic to Highway 41 in Madera County, but Fresno and the developers have not paid for improvements north of the river.

If River Ranch Estates does move forward, it could be the start of larger scale development in Rio Mesa, especially as land gets more scarce in the City of Fresno.

"At this stage, we are being approached by at least three or four other people who want to pick up the baton from Mr. Freels and continue the infrastructure plan to adjoining areas," Herb said.

Dave Herb, Madera County Planning Department, (559) 675-7821.
Timothy Jones, Sagaser, Franson & Jones, (559) 233-4800.
Stephen Ottemoeller, Madera Irrigation District, (559) 268-2483.
John Renning, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, (916) 978-5295.
David Koehler, San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust, (559) 248-8480.