RIVERBANK -- What kind of government meeting draws more people than the traveling circus next door?
The kind that's open to people fearing that their houses might be sacrificed to a freeway.
About 300 homeowners, farmers and others intrigued by the North County Corridor proposal passed up Circo Osorio on the lawn outside Monday to wander among maps and information boards in the community center. Many energetically discussed the idea of a 26-mile expressway linking Highway 108 east of Oakdale to Highway 99 in Salida, which is building momentum among transportation officials and consternation among those in the way.
"It's horrendous, scary," said DeWitt Orton, 75, who has enjoyed quiet country living north of Modesto for 38 years. "My wife wouldn't even come tonight, she's so frightened."
Plenty of others did, many sporting "Make Kiernan Work!" handcrafted badges of all shapes and sizes on their shirts. Gary Darpinian gave out printed, adhesive-backed badges for people who hadn't made their own. "We don't have a group. We don't have a name. We do have a slogan," he said.
Officials won't choose a definite route until later this year. They have said they prefer building a new freeway because Kiernan Avenue, currently being widened to four lanes, won't move cars and people from spots in east Stanislaus County to Highway 99 as quickly and smoothly as their expressway, even if Kiernan grows to six lanes. East-west traffic demands at least 14 new lanes, their studies conclude.
"We need 14 lanes to feed into a six-lane freeway?" Darpinian said. "That's not logical to me."
Hundreds of fingers throughout the evening pointed to spots on huge maps as people showed each other what they stand to lose.
"The west end of my fields are not going to have water," said Frank Deniz, whose irrigation system for oats and corn could be compromised.
Dan Hendrix said he worries for his 5-acre stand of eucalyptus trees, home to wildlife including two species of hawks, he said, next to pasture for his beef cattle. Like many at Monday's open house, he said he also worries about a Modesto Irrigation District proposal that could bring high-voltage power lines through the county.
"Everybody needs power and roads," Hendrix said, "but people also like their peace and quiet, and they'd be messing up a lot of habitat."
Others frowned at bright blue and red lines on maps, running through long-established neighborhoods on streets such as Crawford, Amy and Chenault.
Supervisors: Farmland makes more sense
County supervisors, in a regional transportation planning meeting last week, said it would make no sense to bulldoze those homes because buying them would prove many times more expensive than running an expressway through farmland. But they offered no guarantee until state officials pick a firm alignment.
Writing tables on Monday attracted dozens of people scribbling comments for consultants to consider. Consultants promised to respond in an environmental study due to circulate in August.
"The voice of the community does matter," said Gail Miller of the California Department of Transportation. "This is good, very healthy and what we were looking for."
The meeting focused on the proposed stretch east of McHenry Avenue. But many owners of homes and farms west of McHenry showed up, too. Wherever the expressway crosses McHenry will determine its western path, reasoned Gregg Oxley.
A potential route might skirt the back yard of Mark and Theresa Vallee, who take walks with their four children through orchards that could become a highway.
"We moved out of the city to the country" in 1971, said Chella Gonsalves, "and now it's like a bomb's been dropped."
People gung-ho about the expressway were harder to find Monday. A smiling Saundra West said the new road would be much more convenient for her Sward Trucking vehicles.
On the Net:
For more information, go to www.dot.ca.gov/dist10.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2390.