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April 22, 2013

Public meeting in Santa Nella brings praise

More than 100 Santa Nella residents met Tuesday at the unincorporated community's only school to meet face to face with Merced County employees.

Thomas Hallinan, a 56-year-old resident, said the meeting held in the Romero Elementary School cafeteria is the only one of its kind in his 12 years in town. Representatives of county human services, planning and law enforcement departments, to name a few, were on hand. Hallinan said it was valuable.

"There's no local government, and the county government is more than an hour drive away," he said. "So, people are pretty much on their own out here."

Santa Nella was populated almost entirely by San Luis Dam workers in the 1960s. The mobile home park on Santa Nella Boulevard was meant to house workers.

Supervisor Jerry O'Banion said Santa Nella has gone through some changes in the ensuing decades.

"There was no population out here 20 years ago," he said.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 1,380 populate Santa Nella in 409 households.

O'Banion said Merced County developed a community plan that changed agricultural land to other uses. The housing developments attracted some commuters and retirees.

"It was during the boom that was going on in the West Side," he said.

Enrollment at Romero Elementary, which is part of the Gustine Unified School District, has grown to 286 students and 12 classrooms of 30 or more students. Shannon LaSalle, a teacher there for 17 years, said much of the housing development didn't exist when she moved to town.

"People lived in the trailer park, mostly, and out on the ranches," she said.

The school back then was 10 rooms, with 20 students or fewer per class and no office. LaSalle said its student population hovered around 230, but the school district began planning for the estimated growth in town.

"They had plans and everything, the cafeteria was ready to go, they were going to redo everything," LaSalle said. "Then the housing market crashed."

She said many of the new homeowners in town are retirees without school-age children. According to the census, 57 percent of Santa Nella households are couples without children under 18.

With the rise in upside-down homes came an increase in break-ins, according to retiree Patricia Anderson, 52, and her 48-year-old husband, Barry.

Members of the community have set up a neighborhood watch program in the past six months.

"Some folks were telling us," she said, " 'We're not even taking our vacation anymore during the holidays, because we're worried we'll come back and they've broken into the house.' "

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