State

County corridor switch relieves some Modesto residents

An uneasy calm has settled on dozens of homes no longer in the way of a future freeway north of Modesto.

State transportation officials say they heard loud and clear the countless complaints from upset people along Crawford Road, Chenault Drive and Amy Avenue. So officials cut those neighborhoods out of the area they're studying as they look for the best route for the North County Corridor.

Some neighbors said they're relieved, but many remain nervous and distrustful.

"I can grow to be an old man, sit in that house and listen to that freeway," said Jonathan "Jondy" Cohen.

Richard Davis said people became jaded because officials for several months seemed to pay little attention to public outcry.

"Initially they were pompous and uninterested. They emphasized that they were (listening) because they were legally supposed to," Davis said.

In a phone interview Monday, California Department of Transportation officials said a project development team decided to remove the neighborhoods from the study area after a June town hall meeting in Riverbank that drew hundreds of anxious, vocal critics.

"It just made sense to us" to soothe peoples' fears, said Gail Miller, a Caltrans senior environmental planner.

Some county supervisors had tried to calm people attending monthly North County Corridor meetings, telling them it would be nearly impossible to buy out dozens of established, expensive ranch- ettes. Caltrans surely would choose a route through comparatively cheap orchards nearby, the local leaders said.

So why don't you simply remove our neighborhoods, people asked, from the study area?

"It's actually caused sleepless nights for me," resident Jeannie Grinzell said Monday.

Well, it's protocol to consider large swaths, officials would respond, defending an area 4,000 feet wide even though they expect to take 300 feet when the preferred route is chosen, probably later this year.

The June public meeting changed their minds, said Christina Hibbard, project manager for Caltrans. The project team narrowed the swath to 2,750 feet just east of McHenry Avenue, though it's larger right on McHenry to preserve Caltrans' interchange options.

Farther east, the study area shrinks to 2,000 feet.

"We obviously underestimated" public reaction at the June open house, Miller said.

She acknowledged "terrible acoustics" at the meeting that made it difficult to carry on a conversation without shouting.

Meetings next month to gather feedback on soon-to-be-released environmental studies will be held in larger venues with at least two rooms, one with map displays and meant for informal talks with officials and the other for formal presentations and recording comments from the audience. They are scheduled for the evenings of Sept. 22 in Oakdale and Sept. 24 in Del Rio or Modesto; details are pending.

"It's fairly fluid," Miller said. "We're constantly re-evaluating, working with our consultants and seeing what makes sense."

Miller and Hibbard acknowledged that news of the reduced alignment was conveyed by posting a new map on a Web site rather than through some sort of announcement.

"They're remiss in sharing information unless you throw them against the wall," Davis said. "And they haven't shared any insight into how they make this (routing) decision."

Gary Darpinian, who farms in the area, said: "Caltrans is like a big black box. A lot of input goes in, but we can't watch the process."

Crawford and Chenault ranchette owners remain anxious because the study area's north boundary, though no longer passing through the neighborhood, skirts their access to McHenry.

Officials are hurrying studies in time to transfer $91 million of state money from the Oakdale Bypass, a 50-year-old idea abandoned a couple of years ago, to the North County Corridor.

The expressway would connect Highway 99 at Salida to Highway 108 east of Oakdale, though the studies and money apply only to the leg east of McHenry.

Just west of McHenry are dozens more anxious farmers and homeowners who will have to wait longer to see where the west leg might run.

Asked Darpinian: "Whose ox is going be gored over there?"

On the Net: www.dot.ca.gov/dist10/environmental/projects/northcounty/index.html

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.

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