Oakdale owners team up on corridor

Some Oakdale residents possibly in the path of a future expressway are bucking a tendency to fight it at all costs.

Groups of landowners south and east of town have had multiple discussions with transportation officials, urging them to choose a path hurting more people a little rather than one hurting fewer people a lot.

One group even suggested an alignment through their own properties, though that's not likely to succeed without cooperation from Oakdale's largest employer.

The stab at compromise reflects a departure from pained cries heard for several months as people found out they could be displaced by the 26-mile North County Corridor, or that the freeway could ruin their farms or quiet country living. Many of those complaints come from Salida and ranchette neighborhoods north of Modesto.

The expressway would link Highway 99 in Salida to Highway 108 east of Oakdale, though the current push focuses on the leg east of Mo-desto's McHenry Avenue, which could break ground in five years. State transportation officials are studying half-mile-wide corridors before picking an exact path in a year or two.

While hundreds have railed against the plan in public meetings, the Oakdale farmers quietly met with roadway engineers and consultants to try limiting disruptions to their ranches.

"We're not in favor of the North County Corridor by any means," said Bill Fogarty, "but we don't have the votes in rural areas to stop it. So we're trying to work with it in a realistic way, where it impacts everyone the least."

Ranchers want existing lines

Commonly held wisdom suggests a path down existing property lines, requiring losses on both sides while preserving for both a fighting chance to survive. Running through the middle of a farm could spell disaster, several ranchers said.

"We're all saying we'll take a hit on this thing so one person doesn't get decimated," said Fogarty, who owns pasture near the freeway's planned hookup to Highway 108.

Kurt Hoekstra's family also grows corn in that area to supply their dairy three miles away, and recently installed expensive center-pivot irrigation lines that would become useless if bisected by an expressway.

"We're more than willing to give up a strip along an edge," Hoekstra said. "It would be nice to get it on fence lines rather than messing up a whole operation."

Other group sees potential

Closer to town, rancher Louis Brichetto lined up several property owners asking the state Department of Transportation to consider their land instead of potential swaths now being studied. Such invitations contradict the dark mood at most public hearings.

"It's a common sense alternative," Brichetto said, "rather than everyone saying, 'No, not in my back yard.' "

His group suggests the freeway replace dusty Lexington Avenue and its eventual eastward extension. Oakdale Mayor Farrell Jackson confirmed that City Hall envisions future Lexington improvements, and moving the freeway north from Caltrans' study area would put it closer to Oakdale industry.

"My opinion has always been that we need to have the North County Corridor as close to Oakdale as possible," Jackson said. A more northern route also would place a natural growth barrier to the city's southern creep, he said. "We don't want to see it get out of control," he added.

Brichetto's group members acknowledge they stand to gain from building up their property along an expressway. Manuel Vierra's previous application to develop his 250-acre dairy went nowhere a couple of years ago when city leaders deemed it premature.

"We're trying to work with (transportation leaders), not against them," said Brum de Visser, whose 40-acre heifer ranch on Albers Road is threatened by the expressway. "I think most ranchers support going down existing lines; this person gives a little and that person gives a little so you don't mutilate one piece."

100 percent approval needed

But the mayor said moving a bit north from Caltrans' study area would require 100 percent approval of affected property owners. And ConAgra Foods gets rid of some of the water it uses to rinse and peel tomatoes by draining it on pasture and orchards owned by Brichetto's brother, John.

And ConAgra puts 1,200 people to work during packing season. So the plant favors another of Caltrans' study areas further to the south, said Geoff Pyka, ConAgra's environmental engineer.

"That's Oakdale's largest employer right there," John Brichetto said. "You lost Hershey's — you don't want to lose ConAgra."

John Brichetto and Con-Agra are bracing for battle on another issue with their joint application for a permit to spread nutrient-rich sludge from the plant's wastewater pond on 1,357 acres in 13 parcels near Oakdale owned or controlled by John Brichetto. The plan, scheduled to go before Stanislaus County supervisors on Dec. 8, has drawn fierce opposition from neighbors fearful of odors, flies, mosquitoes, rats and traffic.

Hoekstra, east of town, said it's "not very moral or ethical" to push a huge problem like an expressway onto someone else.

"Between neighbors, I think we can compromise," he said. "If we both lose a little on the edges and not throw it through the middle of a neighbor's operation, everyone would come out with a better feeling about it."

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Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at or 578-2390.