With county officials placing the blame entirely on the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), a proposed off-highway vehicle park in O’Neals was pushed back to its initial stages over environmental concerns last week by the Madera County Board of Supervisors.
Bill Hayter, the county’s grants and special projects manager, said everything revolved around a failure by the FHWA to follow Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. That section requires review of a project area for its effects on historic properties, in this case Native American sites.
“The (FHWA) blew it,” Hayter said, adding the project had been pushed back to its land appraisal stage. “They were supposed to have taken this action and didn’t, and now they’re backtracking ... This is extremely frustrating.”
Late last month, the board approved continued studies on Native American sites throughout the location. The process appeared to be moving forward, District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler said, until an FHWA staffer suddenly switched gears during a teleconference last week.
“They have told us all along what to do,” Wheeler said, adding he felt the county had followed all necessary approvals and processes thus far. “The state and feds told us what to do ... then (FHWA) comes up with (pushing the project back) out of the blue.”
“They were of the opinion Section 106 wasn’t required for a land acquisition,” added Hayter. “And that was wrong ... they blew through it, and now they’re having to back up.”
Hayter said he felt the state was on the cusp of approving grants for the park - 88% of it funded by the state, with the county matching the rest - before the FHWA’s decision.
“Even staff from (California State Parks) were dismayed, because I think they were at the point where they drafted the contract to provide the grants,” Hayter said. “So we’re backing up the bus, but as the passenger, not the driver.”
The board unanimously approved the purchase process for the $2.39 million parcel owned by Margaret Jamison last November - a contract that was canceled by the supervisors through a unanimous vote Oct. 4. Since that initial approval, the project has come under fire for everything from environmental issues such as noise and traffic to effects on Native American land, and whether the park would be a moneymaker for the county or a drain on taxpayers.
Hayter said a meeting was tentatively scheduled for Oct. 19 between the FHWA and tribes with historic ties to the 956-acre property, which stretches from the northern boundary of Minarets High School to east of Highway 41 across from Black Hawk Lodge.
With the outcome of Tuesday’s meeting, it is expected the park will take several years to go through environmental reviews before trails can be designed or other park developments can take place.
Also last week, the supervisors unanimously accepted a $40,000 donation from Fire Station 19 in the Madera Ranchos towards purchase of two new water tenders to be used throughout the county.
“I want to thank Madera County’s paid call firefighters, as well as the administration for putting this all together,” District 1 Supervisor Brett Frazier said. “This is just great that we can have this for fire protection for all the county.”
The county received some $536,000 through state or federal funds towards the purchase of firefighting equipment. Along with the general benefits of having two additional water tenders, county fire officials said both have less strict driving requirements, allowing for a larger pool of drivers that can allow for quicker response times.
Additionally, the board approved paying Peters Engineering Group $237,010 for consulting services on preliminary engineering for a roundabout project at Road 274 and Road 225 in North Fork.