OAKDALE -- While a storm raged outside Tuesday night, the mood inside seemed just as nasty.
Concerned, fearful and angry people marched to the microphone one after another to berate the idea of a new freeway stretching across northern Stanislaus County. Many of them own homes, farms or both in the way.
"So many of the people working on this project don't know that people really live out there. They do," said Gary Darpinian, who farms north of Modesto.
About 200 people took advantage of their first official opportunity to register comments for the formal public record on the North County Corridor, stretching from north McHenry Avenue to Highway 108 east of Oakdale, which could break ground in five years. A later leg to the west would extend the expressway to Highway 99 in Salida.
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California Department of Transportation officials won't settle on a route for a couple more years. In the meantime, they're studying areas shown on maps in corridors 2,000 to 4,000 feet wide, though the freeway's width requires only about 300 feet.
Many in Tuesday's audience wore lapel stickers urging transportation officials to beef up roads already there rather than compromise their property with a new freeway, in some places eight lanes wide.
"I firmly contend that any expressway needs to be placed along existing traffic corridors," said Mark Meissner, to much applause. "Stay off prime ag land."
An information poster said the North County Corridor "may convert 4,600 acres of farmland" to something else.
Deann Dalrymple said rich farmland is consistently turned into housing subdivisions, many of them now pocked with empty, bank-owned homes.
"You're talking about taking a six-lane freeway to my doorstep," she said. "You're putting a hold on the lives of people for the next 30 years."
Others agreed that trying to sell would be hard with a future freeway nearby.
Some, including landowners squarely in study areas, said they learned about North County Corridor plans from neighbors or the newspaper and never received formal notification from the government.
"It doesn't sound like we were welcome," said Richard Meissner. He added, "Tax bills don't have any trouble getting to us."
A draft environmental document predicts traffic delays increasing 500 percent in 20 years without the North County Corridor.
But Ann Absher of Oakdale noted traffic projections showing minimal improvement at various points, and questioned whether spending $1.2 billion is worth the trouble.
And Darpinian quoted from another section where experts based predictions on assumptions showing Modesto adding 58,000 people from this year to next. "It seems like someone forgot to tell you we're in a recession," he said, calling some data "clearly flawed."
The draft document says the east leg could force out 670 people living in 124 homes and 266 workers in nine stores, 27 industrial buildings and 37 farm buildings.
Tuesday's hearing was limited to the freeway's segment east of McHenry, but some people from Salida spoke up, too.
"You're going to have majorly p------ off people at that end, you might as well know that right now," Powell told a panel of transportation officials.
The panel members answered questions in the first part of Tuesday's open house. Oakdale Mayor Farrell Jackson said officials dropped the concept of an Oakdale bypass to the city's north, in play since 1955, because Oakdale would have grown north and would have been bisected by the Stanislaus River. The North County Corridor will help drive economic development because motorists will see the city from the freeway and exit for services, Jackson said.
The panel later was restricted to listening after the official public hearing formally began.
Christine Cox-Kovacevich, Caltrans' central region office chief, made an exception when she confirmed that a group of landowners have proposed a northward shift in a study area just south of Oakdale, to align with Lexington Road and its future extension to the east. She said Caltrans will consider that idea even though the area is outside an area already being considered.
The last public hearing on draft environmental studies is scheduled from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Oct. 22 in the Riverbank Community Center, 3600 Santa Fe St.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2390.