You are hereFriant Ranch development plan sets off debate

Friant Ranch development plan sets off debate

Friant residents see growth; opponents see sprawl, river threat.

Posted at 10:38 PM on Friday, Jan. 21, 2011

Jim Carlton would love to see a busy grocery or hardware store from his mobile home overlooking the sleepy town of Friant, where he has lived for 14 years.

Carlton may not have to wait long. The Bigelow-Silkwood family has big plans for this community -- a 2,500-home development east of Friant Road and south of Millerton Lake. Called Friant Ranch, the project would be aimed at "active adults" and include stores and a community center.

But the project is reviving a long-running debate over urban expansion into rural areas with few public services like sewers and roads.

Opponents say large-scale developments of this kind should be built closer to cities to preserve farmland and minimize environmental harm.

The project would be built next to the San Joaquin River just below Friant Dam.

The Fresno County Board of Supervisors is expected to discuss the development on Feb. 1. The board could approve an environmental report, which would allow the family to begin detailed building plans. It would be at least a couple years before construction begins.

The Bigelow-Silkwood family believes there is a good reason to support the project despite concerns about sprawl, because it would meet a demand for senior housing in the Valley, said Dennis Bacopulos, operating manager for Friant Ranch.

Environmental groups say that benefit isn't worth the cost.

"Our biggest concern is the impact to the river," said Chris Acree, executive director of Revive the San Joaquin, a Fresno nonprofit committed to the restoration of the San Joaquin River. "But at the same time, the biggest threat is leapfrog growth that's done without planning."

But residents like Carlton are ready for change. While traffic has grown along the Friant Road route to Millerton Lake and the Table Mountain Casino, the town itself has declined, Carlton said.

"You can't stay the same," Carlton said.

The community

Friant is an unincorporated community south of Friant Dam with fewer than 800 people surrounded by rolling hills and cattle-grazing land. Small houses, mobile homes and a few shops flank Friant Road.

The Bigelow-Silkwood family -- whose members include Madera County Supervisor Frank Bigelow -- has owned more than 1,000 acres east of Friant Road for decades. They decided seven years ago to develop 942 acres into a residential community geared toward people 55 and older.

"We knew we wanted to retain our historic ties to the land and make something better of the land and better for the community," Bigelow said.

Besides the 2,500 homes, plans include a 15-acre community center, an 18-acre village center with commercial and retail space, and 12.6 miles of recreational trails.

The family also dedicated 1,520 acres, mostly south of the project, as open-space rangeland to be left undeveloped.

"This family wants to revitalize Friant," Bacopulos said. "They want to serve active adults, and they want to conserve and protect the environment."

If approved, the project would be built in four phases and take a decade to complete, Bacopulos said. The cost to begin development and construction is expected to be between $30 million and $50 million, he said, without offering more details.

The family paid for the project's initial planning and development studies, Bacopulos said.

Some Friant residents and business owners hope the new development will help the community grow.

Melissa Blasingame, who has owned the Dam Diner for almost a year with her husband, Ty, said it's time for growth. The project would be built behind her diner and a possible path would let new residents walk down for a bite to eat, she said.

"It will help with business development and economic development, and will bring more people into this community," Blasingame said.

Catherine Kay, a 28-year resident, is excited about the retail portion of the development, which she hopes will bring more service-oriented businesses to town.

"It's a good thing for our community," Kay said. "The community has been very small for a long time."

The concerns

Critics argue that there is more to consider than just the needs of the community, however.

Mary Savala of the League of Women Voters said her group is concerned about land use and planning in Friant.

The group supports a plan to revitalize and protect the area in nearby Lost Lake Park, a Fresno County recreation area southwest of Friant Ranch. But they fear the development plans, which include connecting trails to the park, would ignore those goals.

"We think that the town of Friant is probably not the best place" for a big development, Savala said.

Savala would like to see Fresno County finish a regional plan that would outline how development in communities like Friant should be handled before projects like Friant Ranch are approved.

The city of Fresno also has been critical, even though the project would be outside its jurisdiction. In comment letters on the environmental report, the city has said the project violates the provisions in the county general plans that call for large developments to be built near urban areas.

City officials are among those who repeatedly have raised concerns about what they view as unnecessary sprawl in the face of projects like this. A decade ago, for example, a similar debate played out during planning for the Copper River Ranch development in northeast Fresno.

The city is leery of projects outside the city limits that could create more traffic, air pollution and deprive core neighborhoods of development.

But Bigelow-Silkwood family attorney Bryan N. Wagner said it's not sprawl because a town already exists in Friant where people live and work.

Meanwhile, environmentalists like Acree, of Revive the San Joaquin, are concerned about the effects of the project on vernal pools, fairy shrimp, California salamander and especially on river salmon.

Acree said wastewater from the development could harm the salmon, which have successfully returned to the river through the San Joaquin River restoration project. The restoration project began two years ago to refill the state's second-longest river and restore salmon runs that were wiped out when the dam was built.

In response to wastewater concerns, the Bigelow-Silkwood family plans to build a wastewater-treatment plant in an old mining pit southwest of the development.

Wastewater from the new homes would be reclaimed and used to irrigate an alfalfa field nearby, with no runoff into the river, Wagner said. The existing Friant community also would be able to use the new plant, he said.

But Acree doesn't believe the plant would be able to handle all the wastewater and says some water still would drain into the river.

"We're concerned mostly about the river and the water quality after they start using the San Joaquin River as their wastewater-disposal site," Acree said.

Filling a need?

Despite the criticism, the Bigelow-Silkwood family believes Friant is the right place to pursue its plans and now is the right time.

They would like to market the development to people 55 and older who want to live near recreation and open space.

Seniors are a growing part of the population, which suggests a need for more adult communities, said Mike Winn, chief executive officer for the California Building Industry Association.

By 2024, California's older population will increase by 85% as all baby boomers -- those born between 1946 and 1964 -- exceed age 60, according to the California Department of Aging.

Marketing to older buyers also can help finance a development. These buyers typically have some savings or equity. If they are able to sell their homes and their equity hasn't eroded, they can qualify for new mortgages and bring their equity to the new development, Winn said.

Bacopulos, who has experience in the development of adult communities, said many people of retirement age leave areas like Fresno for adult housing communities on the coast, in Southern California or in Las Vegas.

They are attracted to amenities such as open space and recreation, Bacopulos said.

"We believe that by providing this, we can help prevent the relocation of a lot of this population to other areas," Bacopulos said. "We're going to give them a spot right here in Fresno."

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