Clovis has a reputation for good schools, walking trails, parks and upscale neighborhoods. It’s also one of California’s faster growing cities. People want to live there. So as the city grows, pressure is growing for developers to add new houses, often converting farmland to subdivisions. So how do rural residents there coexist with new development while keeping their country way of life? Reporter Marc Benjamin explains how one neighborhood is adapting to change.
On the northern edge of Clovis is a neighborhood that remains part of the county. People here live beside orchards, raise animals and get water from their wells. It’s called the Dry Creek Preserve. It’s about 800 acres, wedged between exclusive neighborhoods about a mile east of the highly touted Buchanan High School. For Dale Mitchell and 240 other property owners, it’s a rural paradise that they don’t want changing.
The Dry Creek Preserve is about 800 acres. It’s wedged between exclusive neighborhoods about a mile east of the highly touted Buchanan High School. People want to live here. So as the city grows, pressure is building from developers to add new houses.
For Dale Mitchell and 240 other property owners, Dry Creek Preserve is a rural paradise that they don’t want changing.
"Sometimes I can call them with a cowbell, my wife rings a cowbell. I mean we can do that. This time of day they’re likely to be a little lazy," says Mitchell.
Mitchell farms pecans across his quarter-mile long plot of land. The whistle and bell ringing you hear is for his herd of Peruvian pack mules. They’re known for sweaters and spitting. Yes, llamas. A handful of them suspiciously eye unfamiliar visitors to get to their food.
A few feet away Mitchell also has peacocks that let out an occasional loud squawk. He and his neighbors want to keep this way of life but realize development is closing in. They want to have a say in the way new housing tracts are built.
“High-density development is not going to be compatible with the rural environment,” says Mitchell.
Now, after years of sometimes tense negotiations, Mitchell and his neighbors have a breakthrough deal. It will allow Mitchell and his neighbors to continue farming, keep their well, septic system and unusual farm animal menageries even if this rural enclave is annexed to the city.
This rural lifestyle has some history. Around 1900, the area was part of a huge wheat field owned by Clovis Cole. He was known as America’s Wheat King and is also the city’s namesake.
“It was part of the dry land wheat farming operation of Clovis Cole. Dry Creek is about a quarter mile to the west of us, and he had most of the land tied up in wheat farming to the west of Dry Creek and some to the east,” says Mitchell.
In the 1960s, the land was subdivided into large plots that allowed farming and a rural way of life to continue. By 1988, the city started talking about bringing Dry Creek Preserve into the city limits. Residents refused.
Bryan Araki, the Clovis City planner, recalls those days and the reactions of residents.
‘They said “we don’t want to be part of the city, you don’t need to plan for us, we’re OK,” ’ says Araki.
They refused again in 1993 and 2009. But by 2009, Mitchell and his neighbors were starting conversations with the city. By then, the residents wanted some city protection because home builders were making plans for their area without them.
The county area is surrounded by Clovis. Residents rely on the city because it has a say in all development nearby. And even though Mitchell and his neighbors don’t want to be in the city, they want to preserve their way of life. They also want developers to consider their needs, too.
Araki says developers came and went.
“There had been property owners and developers coming in and talking to us about potential for development, what’s the land worth out there?”
In the meantime, Mitchell was preparing. He used his background as a state Fish & Wildlife supervisor to write a plan for residents to retain their property rights and not get overrun by city folk.
Most developers were finding projects too costly especially after the city told builders they had to get buy-in from Dry Creek Preserve residents. That meant fewer homes and less profit.
Woodside Homes showed up in 2015. Matt Smith was assembling 45 acres across eight chunks of property for the company. Then, came the hard part, working with the Dry Creek Preserve neighbors.
City Planner Bryan Araki recalls that Smith and Mitchell got off to a bumpy start.
“Matt Smith and Dale got together. They were rivals at the first commission meeting and Dale was passionate that he didn’t want this project to move forward.”
But Smith wasn’t going away. After two years of meetings and multiple revisions, Woodside Homes, the residents and the city were able to hammer out a compromise.
“At first, we really started looking at it as a project, but then it became more nuanced and we realized there were neighbors who had strong feelings for their land and wanted to preserve their land,” says Matt Smith of Woodside Homes.
That evolution meant understanding the impassioned position of Dry Creek Preserve residents and Woodside grew increasingly serious about reaching a compromise.
The two-part compromise brings Dry Creek Preserve into the city with all the rights residents had while living in the county. It also allows Woodside to build houses, but under conditions agreed to by residents and the city. That means fewer homes on larger lots. Future developments will have to follow a similar path.
"We know we have to make money on it; we know we have to spread the cost over a certain number of lots, says Smith." "But how low of a density can we go and still make money?"
Last week, after three years, the Clovis City Council approved annexing the Dry Creek Preserve and allowing Woodside’s housing tract. There were concerns about traffic and opposition from two residents but more than a dozen others agreed that protections for farming, limiting the number of homes and reducing lighting will give new development that rural feel to better blend with Dry Creek Preserve.
Tom Bell worked on the agreements with Mitchell.
“There’s been trials and tribulations. There’s been frustration by everybody, but the bottom line is I think that we’ve reached an agreement where we have protected all of our residents’ rights,” says Bell.
Casey Belmont is raising his young family near the site of Woodside’s project.
“We now kind of have a path forward to have development in the area and have it still be smart, common sense development that fits with the character of the area and is not a burden on all the residents,” says Belmont.
The years spent working toward that compromise was well worth the effort, according to Clovis Mayor Bob Whalen.
“I see the civic engagement. I see the willingness to be drawn together as a community of Dry Creek Preserve and the way you worked through the differences you may have.”
A few technical issues still need to be ironed out at the county level, but the biggest hurdles between the city, developer and the residents are mostly gone.
And Mitchell thinks it was a fair outcome for his neighborhood and future generations of Clovis residents.
“We will be preserving the rural environment and rural character and hopefully be able to hang on to some of the agriculture since that’s a part of the roots of the city of Clovis and we would hate to see that lost,” says Mitchell.