Sutter Creek takes sides on jobs, revenue or loss of town's character

SUTTER CREEK -- After 15 years in Sutter Creek, Bart Weatherly has learned to set aside extra time for even the simplest errand.

"It takes me an hour just to get through the grocery store because I'm constantly bumping into someone I know," said the 54-year-old, one of 2,300 inhabitants of the picturesque Sierra foothills town located in the middle of a popular wine region in Amador County.

Weatherly's close-knit community may be in for a dramatic makeover, as Sutter Creek residents prepare to vote next Tuesday on the 945-acre Gold Rush Ranch and Golf Resort. If approved, the project would more than double the population of the town, 60 miles northeast of Modesto.

The ballot initiative, Measure N, marks the culmination of nine years of negotiating between the town and the developer, Gold Rush Golf LLC. The process, including more than 40 public hearings, has divided residents into opposing camps, with "No on N" and "Yes on N" signs blanketing the downtown.

Weatherly, a captain for the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District, helped start a grass-roots opposition group, Preserve Historic Sutter Creek. He calls Gold Rush Ranch a serious threat to the region's quality of life.

"I fear losing the quaintness, the beauty of this town," he said.

Weatherly and other opponents insist they are not anti-growth and would have supported a smaller golf resort without the residential component. The project's 1,300 single-family homes and 300 vacation-ownership units will require the removal of more than 13,000 trees, mainly native oaks, the project's environmental impact report said.

Tim Murphy, the only member of the five-person City Council to vote against Gold Rush Ranch in January, said the project is unrealistically big.

"You show me where any project anywhere near this size has ever been done in this county," said Murphy, who has served on the council for 22 of the 30 years he has lived in Sutter Creek. "So what happens is you're leaving the door open for the developer to build a few hundred houses and then sell the whole property to someone with deeper pockets who can come in and do something that's way outside the approved plan."

Developer Bill Bunce dismissed the claim that his team won't see Gold Rush Ranch to completion. He said the project's size is necessary to fund a list of amenities promised to the town, including an upgraded waste-water treatment plant and a public park.

"The city is planning for its long-term future with this project," said Bunce, who lives in El Dorado Hills, east of Sacramento. "It is accomplishing so many things it couldn't accomplish at a smaller size."

Those opposed to the development say the threat of losing those perks is driving much of the support for Measure N. The potential benefits are not worth sacrificing the town's character, they say.

"Sutter Creek is a unique and precious town which successfully bridges history with modern life," local resident and teacher Susan Ross wrote in a letter to town leaders opposing Gold Rush Ranch. "It is that essence that draws people to our community and enriches the life of those fortunate enough to live here."

If Measure N passes, Gold Rush Ranch is scheduled to emerge in stages over two decades, a schedule that will allow the town to adjust to the demands of such significant growth, Bunce said.

The environmental impact report estimates that Gold Rush Ranch would generate about 16,700 daily trips on area roads when it's completed. That influx of traffic threatens to overwhelm the town's quiet, four-block downtown.

Mayor Gary Wooten, whose family has lived in the area for decades, said the changes might upset some residents but are necessary. A supporter, he said it will provide jobs and tax revenue.

He acknowledged the divisions and hard feelings it has created.

"People can disagree on a lot of things without getting upset or mad," Wooten said. "But now we're feeling a really negative animosity. It has divided neighbors and friends, and that's really sad."

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