An explosion of building is ramping up just north of Fresno in Madera County. This area of rolling hills on the way to Yosemite could become a city the size of Clovis. All this development could be good for the county's finances, but as FM89’s Ezra David Romero reports people who already live there say it could change their way of life.
Kimberly Gomes is a realtor who grew up in the Madera Ranchos. It’s an unincorporated community of less 10,000 people just minutes from Fresno.
It’s been around for decades and it's kind of a rural place with homes on lots of around an acre or more. Gomes is showing me a lot in the ranchos she just sold to a developer for $54,000.
“It’s beautiful,” says Gomes. “Sitting out on your front porch enjoying your coffee, listening to your animals.”
Gomes says this feeling of home is why people live here. Residents are able to live near Fresno while maintaining a country-esque lifestyle. Many people here have horses and farm animals. But Gomes says that way of life may be at risk.
“People like the small town feel and they live there to experience country living and they’re afraid it’ll become too city like,” Gomes says. “They moved out there to avoid that.”
She’s concerned because just a few miles southeast of here a development of 6,600 homes called Riverstone is being built on 2,000 acres. It’s the first of many subdivisions and it's all part of the Rio Mesa Area Plan. It could add as many as 30,000 homes in the county over 30 years.
Riverstone will look a lot like a typical subdivision in north Fresno, but much denser than the ranchos. There’s also other developments near here in both Fresno and Madera counties. Not everyone likes the idea of a new city in Madera County. Fred Fuerte says he moved to the ranchos from the Bay Area 16 years ago to get away from all this.
“The reason I moved here personally is because I like the calm way of life,” Fuerte says. “Something that I’ve thought about is that maybe Avenue 12 might eventually turn into maybe like a pass through like the Los Banos area, you know the 152.”
Avenue 12 is the main road through the Ranchos. Despite local complaints, Madera County Planning Commissioner Tom Hurst says the development is positive for a mainly rural county.
“It helps put money into the coffer for Madera County,” says Hurst. “This will increase the revenue and increase the things that the county will have the ability to do because there’s road impact fees there's taxes.”
Riverstone is right off Highway 41 and Avenue 12. The 2,100 acres was mainly used for agriculture and olive trees already there will line the streets.
“This is the next logical place for the region to develop,” says Tim Jones, Principal Owner of Riverstone. It’s easier to get to River Park and Downtown Fresno from this location then it is from many parts in Clovis and Southeast Fresno.”
Jones says early on his company sent out 5,000 postcards to people living nearby asking them what they wanted in the community.
“Super high speed internet was one, so we have fiber to the home," ” says Jones. "Walking trails, we’ve got trails. Clubhouses that connect people. We have probably one of the nicest clubhouses you will ever go in.”
McCaffrey Homes is already selling houses there starting at around $300,000 dollars. Jones’ vision is to create a self contained place with a dense core, stores and other amenities. When fully built people won’t have to drive to Fresno to get groceries or gas.
Of course with self-sufficiency comes the topic of water. Many homeowners in the Madera Ranchos have seen the water levels in their private wells drop or even go dry completely during the drought. Jones says that won’t be a problem for Riverstone, which will use a combo of purchased water rights, wells and access to the Root Creek Water District. He says building the development will actually save water.
“The development needs about 4,200 acre feet of water . . . the actual water demand in the area by even converting two houses will use less than being used now in agriculture,” Jones says.
Over the last 20 years there have been several lawsuits over things like water, air quality, and the environment here. But many have been resolved allowing the development to move forward. For instance air quality will be mitigated through the purchase of air quality credits and the city of Fresno dropped a lawsuit over impacts of the development to the area. I reached out to the city of Fresno about Riverstone opening and they declined to comment saying they want to focus on the city. Fresno State Urban Planning Professor Michelle Calvarese sees the project as positive for the Valley. Her program is funded in part by the builders of Riverstone.
“Even though (the new development is) in a different county it's good for all of us,” Calvarese says. “Both can benefit from each other if we stop looking at it as this is an inclusive city and this is an inclusive city, but rather this is an extension of the region.”
She says development in this northward pattern in Fresno and now in Madera makes sense as the next logical place to build. USC Economics Professor Matthew Kahn agrees, but says there will be some negative impacts.
“With new housing far from the city center the homes will be bigger so the homeowners will love that, but the environmental footprint will be bigger,” says Kahn. “You’ll need more energy for air conditioning and with sprawl everything is spread out so people will be driving more miles.”
And that's one thing that both developers and urban planning professors agree on. They like the proximity of the development to Fresno and even though that means more cars traveling in out of the city. The developer says that could start soon because around 20 homes have already sold and residents are expected to move in later this year.