Elderwood Heights Becomes Legal Decision

After postponing a decision about the proposed Elderwood Heights development twice, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors finally took a vote at their September 23 meeting. Their decision was to send the plan back to the planning commission, and it was based on an interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.

“The property is zoned to do exactly what the property owner wants to do on it,” said Supervisor Steve Worthley, who cited the Fifth Amendment as protecting the rights of private property owners. “We’re not here to pass judgment on the property. We’re here to uphold the law.”

Worthley called for the property owners to do an environmental report and resubmit the proposal through the planning commission. “I know some people are upset that the process has taken so long but this is what the law allows. When we go back through this process, then the board will have a decision to be made at some point in the future.”

With that, he moved to adopt Alternate Proposal #1, which refers the proposal back to staff for further study and report, and requires “clustering (of homes) and a reduction in lot size, water sustainability analysis at each phase and possible mediation between the two parties involved to be brought back to the planning commission for recommendation.”

Supervisor Ishida seconded the motion, which passed unanimously.

Before the vote, Ishida explained why the property was zoned residential, an action taken about 40 years ago. “The prevailing thinking of planning was to move the population to the least productive land, such as the foothills. Citrus wasn’t doing financially well in the early ’70s. I believe that’s why there wasn’t a lot of push (against the idea) from citrus growers.

“Once it’s zoned, we’re held to a different standard,” he added. “We have to look at the law.”

Elderwood Heights is a proposed development that would be built northwest of the City of Woodlake on land that is currently being farmed. The current plan calls for 225 acres to divided into 162 single-family residential lots, ranging in size from 22,500 sq. ft. to 98,650 sq. ft.

The planning commission had recommended that supervisors deny the project because, among their other reasons, they found the property “physically unsuited for rural development,” and that it did not “conform to smart growth and healthy communities principles.”

At previous meetings, neighborhood residents expressed concerns about noise, traffic, water, waste and other issues. Several of them also addressed the board before this vote, calling for the board to adopt the planning commission’s recommendation to deny the proposal. Developer David Roberts of R-7 Enterprises then presented a petition with signatures from 468 project supporters.

Shani Jenkins, attorney for the developers, took the podium to present a list of concessions that R-7 Enterprises was willing to make, such as performing an environmental impact report, reducing the visual impact of the development, using only “colors of low reflectivity” and limiting the amount of turf used. “We’ve probably agreed to 80% of what (development opponents) want,” she said.

Craig Breon, the attorney for Citizens Against Elderwood Heights Subdivision, followed by saying that he was “hopeful that R-7 could bridge more of these gaps.” While the board was in closed session to consider their decision, Breon told the Voice that he hopes that the area residents can “come to some agreement” with the developers. Even so, he was not happy about the board’s decision.

“We would rather have the decision of the planning commission upheld,” he said after the vote. He called the interpretation of the Fifth Amendment used in the supervisors’ decision “radical,” adding that the amendment was intended to provide a balance between private and public interests. “Even a judge like (Supreme Court Justice Antonin) Scalia would not agree,” he said.

Following the meeting, Roberts called the decision “a partial victory” because the board upheld his private property rights. “That’s what my family bought and paid for.”

Roberts was asked why he didn’t submit an environmental impact report with the proposal, an omission that became a point of contention for development opponents.

“The county never asked for one,” he said.

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