HILMAR — Lifelong resident Steve Belo said he hears about a theft in town almost every day something that was unheard of when he was growing up here.
"They stole 26 baby calves out of one of our ranches in Hilmar," the 30-year-old farm manager said. "They stole a tractor in broad daylight."
Whether it's theft of sprinklers, pumps or copper wire or a crime as serious as home invasion residents in Hilmar feel less safe these days, Belo said.
They blame illegal marijuana growers for much of it.
Belo has since become a coordinator with Hilmar Farm Watch, a sort of neighborhood watch group that formed in 2007 to fight the unease locals felt about crime in the area.
The organization held a meeting last week to discuss Merced County's proposed marijuana ordinance. Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin, members of the Sheriff's Tactical And Reconnaissance team and representatives of area politicians attended.
Hilmar Farm Watch started with about a dozen neighbors, coordinator Charlene Borrelli said, and the number of contacts has since exploded to about 2,500 with the help of social media.
The unincorporated area of Hilmar-Irwin has a population of 5,200, according to the last census.
The focus of last week's meeting the proposed marijuana ordinance would limit the cultivation of medical marijuana to 12 plants for any parcel of land, regardless of the property's size, whether it's indoor or outdoor, or the maturity of the plants.
Under the current state law, there is no limit on the plants if they are grown outdoors.
Borrelli, who also farms oats and corn, said the proposed ordinance would benefit the people of Hilmar.
"We definitely support it," Borrelli said. "That would be a solution to what we're seeing out here."
Pazin credited Hilmar Farm Watch as being an integral part of drawing up a new marijuana ordinance in the county.
"Those people have it dialed in," he said. "They're the ones who kept this ordinance on the front burner."
Pazin said crime in Hilmar is not statistically worse, but the area has seen home-invasion robberies. He said there is a rise in "nuisance" crimes such as trespassing and littering related to illegal growers.
And Hilmar is not alone, he said. Illegal growers find pockets of land countywide, sometimes planting cannabis among cornstalks.
The proposed ordinance would give continuity to the county's laws, Pazin said, and allow deputies to wrangle in illegal growers.
"It's a positive thing," he said.
The Board of Supervisors will take the final vote Tuesday.
Reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or email@example.com.