State

Modesto voters get a say on 5 annexation areas

Modesto voters in November will be asked if they think the city should grow outside its current boundary to accommodate projects that could yield business parks and land for industrial development.

The City Council on Tuesday voted to place five areas outside the city limit before residents on advisory votes that could indicate public support for them.

Council members stressed that they wanted to create more opportunities for businesses to open here, although at least two of the potential annexation areas have significant residential components.

"As the economy turns around, we'll be ready," Modesto City Councilwoman Janice Keating said.

A tense point of the nearly four-hour meeting came when City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood advised Councilman Garrad Marsh to step down from the growth votes because of a potential conflict of interest he has as the owner of developable land.

The state Fair Political Practices Commission in April advised Marsh to abstain from a vote on a proposed farmland preservation ordinance because the measure could restrict the city's amount of developable land and theoretically increase the value of his plans for a 14-lot subdivision in northeast Modesto.

Marsh, a slow-growth advocate, views that advice as specific to farmland preservation. The city's development lobby argues that it should apply to all growth decisions.

The FPPC has not indicated to the city whether its April letter should be interpreted more broadly. Wood urged Marsh to abstain "out of an abundance of caution."

"I totally disagree," he said, emphasizing that his vote Tuesday was to send advisory measures to the ballot that would give voters a say on future growth. "I doubt there will be an impact on property I own," he said.

The council voted 6-0 to ask voters whether four areas outside the city should be considered for eventual annexation. One passed with a 4-2 vote. Councilman Will O'Bryant attended most of the meeting but left early and missed the decision on the ballot measures.

The proposals likely would not be brought within the city for at least seven years, with many opportunities for residents to protest the projects before then.

The areas that won unanimous support from the council are:

The north McHenry Avenue corridor, a 130-acre area that is developed and characterized by a row of car dealerships.

A 240-acre area west of Highway 99 that is designated to be developed as a business park. This project is coveted because it has visibility on Highway 99. One west Modesto resident spoke against this proposal because of concerns about traffic congestion and building on prime farmland.

An 1,100-acre area along Kiernan Avenue that is prized because of its proximity to Highway 99. Residential growth could develop, as well.

Tivoli North, a 480-acre proposal that focuses mostly on residential development east of Oakdale Road but has room for at least two retail sites

The project that advanced by the 4-2 vote is the 960-acre Hetch Hetchy planning area north of the city limit.

Keating and Councilman Dave Lopez voted to wait on putting Hetch Hetchy before voters because they are concerned that residents might balk at any measures that would suggest plans for residential development during a recession. They said they wanted to improve the chances of commercial projects.

Several landowners in the Hetch Hetchy area encouraged the council to advance their property toward annexation, noting that nearby growth has made it difficult for them to farm.

Developers can skirt the advisory Measure M votes, which ask whether sewer lines should be extended outside the city limit. But doing so could give their projects a public relations problem that could jeopardize their success.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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