The second largest residential development in the history of Madera County, the 1,656-acre, 5,190-home Tesoro Viejo (Rio Mesa) planned urban community, was recommended for re-approval 4-0 by the Madera County Planning Commission Oct. 2.
With the absence of commission chairman Ross Thornton, vice-chairman Larry Wright presided over the two-hour hearing.
The project site is located east of Highway 41, three miles north of Ave. 12 on property known as the Peck Ranch.
The project proposes a mixed-use development consisting of up to 5,190 dwelling units (single family homes, duplexes, apartments, bed-and-breakfast establishments), about three million square feet of commercial, retail, office and light industrial uses (restaurants, hotels, medical offices) along with 350 acres of open space and recreational areas including trails and neighborhood parks. About 60 acres has been designated for schools.
Full project buildout, with a population close to 16,000, has been estimated for 2025, although it could be later due to anticipated litigation and uncertain market conditions.
San Francisco attorney John Sanger, who represents project developer McCaffrey Homes of Fresno, said the project is a response to Madera County's desire to establish a new growth center in the Rio Mesa area with a full town containing not merely homes but commerce and recreational facilities at the highest possible quality level.
"Such a new town would represent a desirable place to live and work in Madera County ... in a well-planned, non-sprawl community. That is what the County General Plan has asked for and my client has responded -- now for eight years," Sanger said. "All of this would occur at no cost to the county or its taxpayers. It would generate major new net revenues which would help the county meet other needs, while also addressing needed business and residential opportunities."
Superior court ordered additional EIR details
County planning priviously recommended and the board of supervisors approved the Tesoro Viejo project on December 8, 2008, but the project was put on hold by court proceedings that required the developer and the county to provide more technical analysis and mitigation measurers in the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for roads, traffic and water. Additional revisions were made with regards to air quality, noise and biological resources.
The court action came after a suit was filed by attorneys representing the Madera Oversight Coalition. The current chairman of the group is Bruce Gray of O'Neals. Tony Ward of Ahwahnee serves as an adviser to the coalition.
The coalition's website states their primary objective is to encourage responsible growth through adherence to California Land Use Law and the Madera County General Plan Policies, while promoting the health, safety and welfare of the public within Madera County.
The group is represented by Fresno attorney's Patience Milrod and Sara Hedgpeth-Harris. Milrod said the coalition is a pro-growth group that believes developers should follow the laws that protect the community from specific adverse impacts of any given development.
The coalition has challenged other EIR's including three proposed rock quaries near Highways 41 and 145, additional homes at Sierra Meadows Golf Course, a condominiums project at the Pines Resort at Bass Lake and Gateway Village, being developed by Castle & Cook.
To comply with the court writs, the EIR has been revised to provide additional analysis regarding alternative sources of water, traffic and archaeological mitigation measures.
Commissioner Wright said the commission supported the project the first time around, and it continues to support it.
"We feel the revised EIR adequately addressed the concerns of the court and our vote reflects that conclusion" Wright said.
Milrod said those efforts have fallen short.
"The whole purpose of the EIR is to give the community a true picture of how the project will affect them, and to let the developer know what the County is going to require to be sure the project does not hurt Madera County residents," Milrod said. "This EIR doesn't do either of those things."
Milrod said the revised EIR still does not address the project's huge traffic impacts which will include tens of thousands more daily trips on Highway 41 and on surrounding county roads.
"The project will be dumping massive amounts of new traffic daily onto local roads, including Highway 41," Milrod said. "This is especially worrisome because the county is also considering a huge new rock quarry project near the intersection of Highways 41 and 145 ... so imagine all the traffic that already moves up and down 41, plus all the Tesoro Viejo truck and commuter traffic and 1,000 semis with double trailers full of gravel every day. The EIR includes no guarantees the developers will construct adequate road improvements to handle all that additional traffic.
Milrod said the additional traffic will result in more toxic air pollution.
"In this Valley, that additional air pollution means more and worse asthma, hospital and doctor visits, and lost days at work and school," Milrod said.
Three sources of water
The report identifies, as required by the courts, three primary alternative sources of water supply, which, in various combinations, would provide a reliable supply for the project. These sources include (a) on-site groundwater; (b) off-site groundwater at Cottonwood Creek Ranch which would require the construction of an eight-mile pipeline within the Ave. 15 right of way from the ranch to the project site; and (c) water sold to the developer by the Madera Irrigation District (MID). The planning report states the developer has executed a binding Water Service Agreement with MID, although a court challenge has recently been filed by Madera Oversight Coalition and Revive the San Joaquin to invalidate that agreement.
The purchase of MID water would eliminate the need for water from Cottonwood Ranch.
Construction of the pipeline between CWCR and the project site and construction of recharge basins has the potential for significant construction-related impacts on biological resources, noise affecting nearby residences, air quality resulting from excavation and use of equipment and temporary disruption of traffic during construction. The revised EIR says all such impacts would be less than significant or mitigated to a less-than-significant level.
Milrod said it is irresponsible for the county to approve a project until it has proof that the developer and or the Madera Irrigation District have received the necessary permits to provide water for the project.
"This EIR does not admit there is no secure water supply for the project," Milrod said. "State and federal agencies, and courts, have already told the developer which hoops he'll have to jump through in order to use San Joaquin River water. He hasn't jumped through those hoops and he probably won't be able to. He claims backup water is available from Madera Irrigation District but MID's water bank, and other water it wants to use for the Tesoro project, is supposed to be used for agriculture. If MID wants to use its water for urban development, MID itself will have to get permissions from state and federal agencies, but there's no reason to believe those agencies will grant those permissions."
"Our clients successfully challenged the County's 2008 approval of this project ... in 2010 the courts ordered the developer and the county to fix the EIR. Since the EIR still fails to protect the public, that's an issue the courts will take up if the county supervisors approves the project again," Milrod said.
Wright said many professionals in planning and development know there is no such thing as a bullet proof EIR.
"If interest groups want to stop a project, this is how they do it," Wright said referring to previous law suites filed against the project.
Sanger said his client has offered to pay in advance for road improvements.
"My client offered four years ago and continues to hold open an offer to advance funds for major improvements to Highway 41, 10 to 15 years ahead of when they would otherwise be required ... so the county would get the benefits earlier than otherwise. In effect it would lend the money against future impact fees instead of waiting to pay as the project developed. This is considered a major benefit to the county and not something the county could require."
Rio Meza Area Plan
According to the planning staff report, Madera County recognized the potential for large-scale development in the southeastern portion of the county in 1990, based an increase in development interests from private land owners, the proposed relocation of the Valley Children's Hospital to the area, and the potential for a future University of California campus in the county (that eventually went to Merced County).
These factors led the county to concentrate on this portion of the county for future urbanization and the implementation of a master plan for the Rio Mesa Area as part of the county's General Plan to provide a planning framework for development projects such as Tesoro Viejo. The Rio Meza Area Plan is bounded by Highway 41 to the west, the San Joaquin River and Fresno County to the east, Road 145 and the Millerton Lake State Recreation Area to the north and northeast and the San Joaquin River to the south.
"Our planning staff believes that development within Tesoro Viejo would consist of high quality projects incorporating a variety of desirable amenities and new community design concepts," said Madera County Planning Department Director Norman Allinder. "Such development would benefit this area of the county and the region in general."
The only residential project approved by the county larger than Tesoro Viejo is Gateway Village off Highway 41 at Ave. 12. That project, consisting of 6,580 homes on more than 6,000 acres, was approved by supervisors in 2006 after settling a law suit with the Madera Oversight Coalition . As a result of the suit, the Gateway developer offered the county $1 million to pay for coordinated planning in the southeast portion of the county. According to Milrod, the county rejected the offer, so the settlement money was paid to the nonprofit Rose Foundation to fund community action to promote responsible growth in southeast Madera County.
In addition to Gateway Village, three other large developments in the Rio Mesa area have been approved to move forward. Both North Shore at Millerton and Gunner Ranch West are planning 2,000 homes and Tra Vigne plans to have 60 homes. None of the projects have broken ground.
In addition to Wright, the three other commissioners voting in favor of the Tesoro Viejo project were Ray Krause, Donald Holly and Larry Pistoresi, Jr.
The project will now come before the Madera County Board of Supervisors in November. The planning commission serves as the advisory and recommending body to the board on planning matters.
"The Madera Oversight Coalition has tried to work with both the county and the developer to find ways to reduce the impacts of Tesoro Viejo but the developer has refused to compromise," Milrod said. "My clients would like to be able to support this project, if it were done right."
McCaffrey Homes has built 8,000 homes in Central Valley
More than 35 years ago, Robert and Karen McCaffrey joined her father, John Bonadelle, a pioneer in the Valley homebuilding industry, to build homes for families in the Central Valley. The tradition continues today with the addition of Bob and Karen's son and daughter, Brent and Lauren, along with their spouses, Elizabeth and Ash, to the company. Bob serves as CEO of McCaffrey Homes.
The company has built more than 8,000 homes in Madera, Fresno and Clovis in the past 35 years. The company has been honored with many of the building industry's and the community's highest awards including the Central California Business in Excellence Award (2004), the national Eliant Homebuyers' Choice Awards (2011, 2012), Fresno Bee's People's Choice for homebuilder annualy since 2005, four-time Pacific Coast Builders Conference Gold Nugget Award, Builder Magazine's Top 200 Builders Nationwide Award (2010) and three-time National Association of Homebuilders Best Product Design honors.
"McCaffrey Homes realizes we build much more than houses -- we build dreams," said Robert McCaffrey, CEO of the company. "The McCaffrey family knows what makes a house a home. Things like plenty of room for your families and memories to grow and quality that exceeds building standards."
Giving back to the communities where they live and work is important to the whole family. McCaffrey Homes supports a number of non-profit organizations throughout the region including Children's Hospital of Central California, Saint Agnes Medical Center, Habitat for Humanity, Susan G. Komen for the CURE Central Valley, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central California, Catholic Charities, Clovis Rodeo and Toys for Tots.
Details of the Tesoro Viejo Plan, including the Environmental Impact Report, county planning staff report, mitigation measures, maps and public and agency letters are contained in a 4,700-page planning department report. The full report can be seen at: madera-county.com/index.phpforms-and-documents/category/209-supporting-documents.
Other developoments surrounding Tesoro Viejo project
North: The area directly north of the project site, consists of Little Table Mountain, and is designated for agricultural and open space land uses. The North Fork Village is proposed to be located immediately northeast of Tesoro Viejo.
South: The land south of the Tesoro Viejo site to the county line is mostly undeveloped or in agricultural uses, but is projected in the RMAP for development of the Ave. 12 Village. The Ave. 12 Village would include low--density residential, commercial uses and open space and parks. Existing uses include two golf courses with a clubhouse and a few mobile homes.
East: The San Joaquin River is east of the project site. The existing 49 lot Sumner Hill Subdivision lies between a large portion of the site to the west and a relatively small portion (about 60 acres) of the site to the east.
Northeast: An area designated for the proposed North Fork Village, which is now in agricultural uses and is designated for low density residential, neighborhood commercial uses, light industrial uses and open space and parks. The most northerly portion of North Fork Village has been approved for development with access from Highway 145. Approvals for development of the other portion of the North Fork Village were rescinded at the request of the owner after prolonged litigation.
West: Highway 41 is located west of the project site as is the subdivision known as Bonadelle Ranchos. Additionally, the approved Village of Gateway development is southwest of the Tesoro Viejo project, west of 41, and the 1,135-acre Gunner Ranch West Project is further southwest and south of Ave. 12 and west of 41. the project is currently under review.