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Rio Mesa's 'litigation magnet'

Madera County plans in a vacuum, to the detriment of the entire region.
Sunday, Feb. 15, 2009 - Editorial in Fresno Bee

In the eyes of its developers and their supporters, the Rio Mesa area in southeast Madera County will one day be a sparkling new community of upscale homes and comfortable suburban living. In the eyes of its detractors, Rio Mesa is like watching an accident about to happen, and being too far away to help.

Rio Mesa has been on the drawing boards for more than a decade. It would ultimately put 100,000 residents on land that is largely used for grazing cattle today.

It has become a litigation magnet. Most recently, several environmental groups, Fresno County and the Chawanakee Unified School District have filed lawsuits, together and separately, questioning the Madera County Board of Supervisors' unanimous approval of two massive projects in the area. They have a number of well-founded concerns about the planning process being used to advance Rio Mesa.

The overarching problem is the absence of comprehensive planning for this mammoth undertaking. The existing Rio Mesa area plan is a relic of 1995, when southeastern Madera County was in the running as the site for the new University of California campus. The campus ultimately went to Merced, but the plans weren't updated.

Each of the Rio Mesa area projects is being planned separately, which is bad planning. The cumulative impact of all the plans -- on water, air quality, transportation, schools, historical resources -- must be taken into account, and it hasn't been.

Fresno County officials, for instance, are concerned about the impact of 100,000 new residents just across the county line, and they should be. Many of those new residents will work in Fresno and Clovis, bringing more traffic to already inadequate roads. That has to be addressed -- and hasn't been.

The Rio Mesa area includes much of the historic lands of the Dumna tribe, and their concerns have similarly gone unmet. An archeologist hired to study the area complained in a letter to the county that evidence of human remains she found was not included in the draft environmental impact report for the area, a serious omission.

There are real and unresolved concerns about water for the projects. The San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust is troubled by the impact of one of the projects on the river and the parkway, and has sued to stop it.

As planned, the Rio Mesa projects are all classic suburban sprawl, which is increasingly viewed with skepticism by both experts and the public. As planned, they would be low-density, miles from job centers and indifferent to regional concerns.

That's the most troubling aspect of Rio Mesa and Madera County's attitude. Throughout all of this, Madera County has blithely forged ahead, operating as if in a vacuum. It's been that way since 1893, when its residents seceded from Fresno County. The proud posture of stubborn independence may be appealing, but it sometimes makes for poor neighbors.

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