County updates at recent Town Hall meeting

School safety, roads, rural fire fee details, forest plan and dirt pad on Highway 49 discussed

Carmen GeorgeFebruary 7, 2013 

Representatives from county government, education, the U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire reported on a variety of issues and projects affecting the Mountain Area at District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler's Jan. 31 Town Hall meeting in Oakhurst.

The full house at the Oakhurst Community Center last week took special interest in an update on road projects throughout Eastern Madera County.

Road projects

Johannes Hoevertsz -- county road commissioner who now also oversees other public works activities due to a recent elimination of the Resource Management Agency -- told the crowd that one of the county's biggest projects was recently completed: rebuilding North Fork Road (200).

The project began in 2007, cost $14 million in construction and $2 million in environmental work, and was the last of the Measure A projects, he said.

The next road project to be completed is the Yosemite Springs Parkway Bridge (Road 450) project leading into Coarsegold's Yosemite Lakes Park, which should be done in the next two or three months, he said.

Upcoming road projects in the Oakhurst area include a new bridge on Fresno Flats Road (425B), sidewalks to be added on the north side of Crane Valley Road (426), and a "Teddy Bear Lane" circulation project between Highway 41 and School Road (427) that would include replacing a bridge, he said.

Hoevertsz said Road 209 south of Coarsegold will be widened.

Flashing beacons were also recently installed at Oakhurst Elementary School.

Education

The safety of students was on the forefront of Yosemite Unified School District Superintendent Jim Sargent's mind as he addressed residents last week.

In the wake of the school shooting in Connecticut, Sargent (who replaced Steve Raupp after he retired this summer) said student safety has been on many people's minds and that volunteers interested in watching over the district's campuses would be welcome.

While "priority number one" is to protect students "we don't want to lock down schools and make them feel like a prison," Sargent said.

Schools also face other dangers, including people trying to kidnap children and bullying by students.

"We've spent a tremendous amount of time trying to reallocate resources that are very scarce to do something schools never were supposed to do in the first place -- be fortresses to protect our students," Sargent said.

Sargent said he's looking forward to meeting with the community in the future with more positive news and "thank you to the people who have welcomed me to the community."

Sierra National Forest

Public comment is being sought for a new land management plan for the Sierra National Forest -- 1.5 million acres just north of Oakhurst.

"Get involved because the land doesn't belong to me, it belongs to you," said U.S. Forest Service District Ranger David Martin. "Get involved in the process so we can ensure your national forest is what you want for it."

Martin said the plan was last updated in 1991, and that "more needs to be done" for recreation and fuel hazard reduction in the Sierra National Forest.

"I've worked through a lot of superintendents and he's the best," Wheeler said of Martin. "He really works with us."

Public meetings and webinars regarding updating the forest plan will be held Feb. 9, Feb. 12 and Feb. 20.

Details: See Page A2 of the Jan. 31 edition of the Sierra Star, or call Veronica Garcia (559) 297-0706, ext. 4966 for reservations.

Rural fire fees

Cal Fire-Madera County Battalion Chief Chris Christopherson updated the community on a controversial state fire fee that charges nearly a million rural residents between $115 and $150 per structure.

Christopherson said the governor recently announced a detailed break-down of where the money from the fees will go, including vegetation management, community outreach to ensure structures meet code-enforcement for fire clearance, "cost recovery" -- money to go after people who cause negligent fires, and an emergency fund to take some of the burden off local agencies to offset deficits caused by large fires.

Other updates

Wheeler said Jan. 31 the county continues to await an appointment by the governor for a new supervisor for District 1, to fill Frank Bigelow's seat after he was elected to the state Assembly Nov. 6. Wheeler also introduced Rick Farinelli, elected as the new supervisor for District 3, replacing Ronn Dominici who did not seek re-election.

Wheeler recently replaced Dominici on the San Joaquin Air Pollution Control District Board, and said he plans to push for more burn days for Mountain Area residents.

He also addressed some circulating rumors for the future of a large graded pad on Highway 49 in Oakhurst.

"There's no Walmart, no Target, no YARTS, and no airport (planned for the property)," Wheeler said. "(The owner of the property) is just getting ready for when the economy is good to go again."

Wheeler said the county now has a "balanced budget" although it's still operating "in the red" and a three-year plan was voted on and passed to pay off the deficit.

Among many efforts to reduce costs, furloughs have continued and the Resource Management Agency was recently dissolved with its duties divided out.

"We're meaner and meaner, but I think we're more efficient," he said of many county jobs lost since 2007-08.

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