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Supervisors reject proposal for 250 homes

The Merced County Board of Supervisors rejected Tuesday a developer's plan to build 250 houses in the Volta area, just west of Los Banos.

The board voted 3-2 against the proposal, which would have added the 250-home, 47-acre development to a mix of housing projects now in the works on the Westside. Supervisors Deidre Kelsey, Kathleen Crookham and John Pedrozo voted against it.

An OK from the board would have allowed the developer, Mike Kim of Turlock, to submit more detailed plans for the county's review, and to begin legally required studies on how his project would affect the environment; the plan still would have required further approvals to break ground.

The proposal, called Brookhaven, drew sharp criticism from the public at Tuesday's board meeting.

Besides worries about the region's water supply, opponents said they see Brookhaven as a dangerous first step toward urbanizing Volta, a small farming community that draws most of its jobs from three large produce- packing companies.

In addition to the housing subdivision, Kim's plan would have expanded Volta's urban limit lines -- boundaries designed to concentrate growth in certain areas.

Maureen McCorry, director of the Valley Land Alliance, questioned why the county would consider paving more farmland only to add more stock to its already saturated housing market. "This is a proposal in search of a need," McCorry said. "We don't need to be building new towns on our ag land."

Tim Durham, director of operations at Ingomar Packing Co., said that urbanizing Volta could push his company -- which provides the county significant tax revenue -- to relocate outside county limits.

The California Department of Fish and Game opposes Brookhaven because it would destroy wildlife habitat, said Justin Sloan, an environmental scientist with the department. "It doesn't appear to us that there's a valid reason ... for placing this development here," Sloan said. "Where's the demand?"

Only John Hansen, who owns the engineering firm that's working on Brookhaven, spoke in support of the project.

Supervisor Jerry O'Banion moved to allow Brookhaven to submit more detailed plans. "I believe this (developer) realizes there will be a lot of hurdles ahead, but if he wants to go forward anyway, I think he should have that right," O'Banion said.

Supervisor Mike Nelson agreed. The board's three other members didn't.

Supervisor Kelsey said the county's economy shouldn't risk losing the jobs and tax revenue generated by Ingomar and Volta's two other packing plants, especially when the county is already struggling to provide services to its residents.

She pointed to a shortage of sheriff's personnel that has left the communities of Delhi and Winton largely unpatrolled. "If we can't provide services for (growth) we've already approved, how can we consider more?" she asked. "It's out of control."

Brookhaven was proposed for the southwest corner of Grand Avenue and Volta Road. The site is now zoned for agricultural uses, though it's no longer being farmed.

Kim, the developer, said Brookhaven would have provided affordable housing for middle-class families and first-time homebuyers. He said floorplans would have ranged between 1,600 and 2,200 square feet.

Another developer proposed building houses on the same land in 1999, but that project never materialized. The city of Los Banos opposed that development.

Four massive housing developments are already in the works on the county's Westside, though none has broken ground. Two of them have been approved by the Board of Supervisors. Two others are still under review.

If all goes as developers plan, those developments would add about 80,000 people over the next 30 years to the region just west of Los Banos.

Reporter Corinne Reilly can be reached at 209 385-2477 orcreilly@mercedsun-star.com.

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