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The sound of jackhammers does not count as notification

POSTED June 24, 2011 7:20 p.m.

If the City of Turlock opted to develop an affordable housing complex fewer than 500 feet from your home, would you expect to be notified?

Don’t. I wasn’t.

At a special meeting of the Turlock City Council Tuesday night, the council voted to sell the site of Turlock Recreation Services, 301 Starr Ave., to the Turlock Redevelopment Agency. In the next few years, the agency expects to partner with a non-profit housing provider to develop the parcel into low to extremely-low income housing units, likely multifamily infill development or senior affordable housing.

I own a home fewer than 500 feet from Turlock Recreation Services. And I received absolutely zero notice of the plan.

The first I heard of the notion was when I received the agenda for a Special Meeting of the Turlock City Council in my e-mail inbox at 4:47 p.m. on Monday. That’s just 24 hours and 13 minutes before the Special Meeting itself occurred, at 5 p.m. Tuesday, making it difficult for most 8 to 5 workers to attend.

Were I not a newspaper reporter, whose specific duty it is to read council agendas, I wouldn’t have heard of the issue at all. As it is, I barely had a day’s notice.

If you’ll allow me an aside, I’d like to note that I’ve hesitated to write this. I’m no NIMBY. I understand the need for affordable housing and, to be quite honest, the site makes sense.

The ground underneath Turlock Recreation Services has long been zoned Medium Density Residential. It’s a zoning suited to townhomes and the like, allowing between seven and 15 units per acre.

The development would certainly fit in with the adjoining community, a mish-mash of single family homes, townhomes, apartments, and zero-lot-line residences. Planning Director Debbie Whitmore called the development, “a perfect fit.”

It’s a great fit for the City of Turlock, as well. Years of layoffs and downsizing in the wake of declining tax revenues have left the city with an excess of office space. Closing 301 Starr Ave., then perhaps moving Recreation into vacant offices at City Hall seems a smart move. The city could save on maintenance and operation costs, while better aligning its portfolio of properties to meet current staffing levels.

And, as redevelopment agencies are in “use it or lose it” mode now, given the proposed and now seemingly-imminent discontinuance of all RDAs statewide, it makes sense to spend or obligate whatever funding remains in the Turlock RDA’s coffers before the state can seize it.

Would the parcel perhaps make more sense as a teen center, that long-held dream of the Parks, Recreation, and Community Commission? Perhaps, given its relatively cheap cost and proximity to the Skate Park, but the RDA had funding available only in its 20 percent housing setaside, money which can only be spent on the development of low-income housing.

Are there other, possibly vacant sites in Turlock which perhaps make better sense for affordable housing developers? It’s probable. But with this “act now or forever lose your money” state of affairs, the RDA had to obligate its funding quickly.

The City of Turlock was a willing seller. This was the quickest deal that could be made.

There would be no hardball negotiations between the City of Turlock and its own RDA on the property’s value – $320,000, per an appraisal. The move made sense in that it both obligated RDA funds, and allowed Turlock to shed excess property.

I wouldn’t have opposed the decision. I still don’t.

But I question why, on earth, the City of Turlock didn’t notify nearby property owners of the intended change in use.

Perhaps the city was not required to notify us, as the new use was permitted under existing zoning. But that seems too easily abused.

Let’s say the City of Turlock rezones a parcel, say the current site of the Turlock Police Department, to “racetrack” in the in-progress General Plan revision. Then, let’s say Turlock sells the Police Department building to a new sub-agency, the Turlock Racetrack Authority, for instance, and develops the site into a 1/8 mile dirt track. Every Friday night, my neighborhood would then be filled with the roar of un-muffled engines, the kind that make me near-deaf when I journey to the Merced Speedway.

I admit, the argument is a bit facetious, as the conversion of a police station to a racetrack would probably require significant environmental review. But the point still stands: if Turlock can sell property to itself for a use acceptable under the current zoning, without notifying nearby property owners, doesn’t that seem offensive?

And, even if notification was not required, doesn’t it seem like giving nearby residents a heads-up is simply the right thing to do? There’s nothing we could have done to stop it, and nothing I would have wanted to do to stop it. How difficult is it to send out a postcard, or offer more than 24 hours notice of a normally unscheduled meeting?

Turlock is in the midst of a campaign called “Choose Civility.” The intent of the program is to make Turlock into the “nicest city in the world.”

I think, in the future, the City of Turlock should lead by example in this campaign. Turlock may not be legally required to inform us peons of their every decision, but sending out a plain postcard notification would simply be the right thing to do.

To contact Alex Cantatore, send him proper notification, not a last minute e-mail to acantatore@turlockjournal.com. Note: the sound of jackhammers does not count as proper notification.

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