Hilmar is a small town and it would like to stay that way, according to a petition circulating the farming community.
The document, which has amassed over 600 signatures, implores the Merced County Board of Supervisors to shoot down plans by Turlock-based homebuilder JKB Living to construct a 103-unit apartment complex in the heart of town.
The Poquito Luxury Apartments are advertised by the JKB Living website as a project which will “uniquely blend luxury living” with the newly-constructed Lola Bistro and Event Center near downtown Hilmar. The vacant lot behind the restaurant used to be a small golf course, but sat abandoned for years before JKB Living President James Brenda purchased the property nearly 15 years ago.
According to Hilmar County Water District Board President Joe Gomes, JKB Living originally approached the water board in December 2015, requesting a conditional approval letter for the construction of a senior living complex on the property before they took their proposal to the Board of Supervisors.
The property was designated for the senior living environment based on the Hilmar Community Plan, which was updated about 10 years ago and calls for “moderate growth,” said John Anderson of J.B. Land Use Planning, who has worked with Brenda on several properties in Ripon, Modesto, Lathrop and now Hilmar.
After taking into account the lack of immediate medical services in Hilmar, JKB Living decided a senior living complex would not be marketable in the town and filed an application to modify the town’s general plan to build an apartment complex. The project, located on the north side of W. First Street, 600 feet east of Lander Avenue, is currently designated as Quasi-Public and Mixed Use, but JKB is proposing to change the general plan designation to Medium Density Residential and the zoning designation to Planned Development.
“Fortunately for Hilmar, James is an expert builder, and he’s wanting to duplicate what he’s doing up in Ripon,” said Anderson, pointing out the splendor of Ripon Garden Apartments’ upscale atmosphere. “That’s what we’re trying to emulate.”
For Gomes and other Hilmar residents who have taken to social media to voice their displeasure, there are numerous concerns to be had with the potential apartment complex.
“These apartment complexes seem to breed people that deal drugs, undesirables,” said Gomes. “We realize that people need a place to live, but what happens when you get a big complex like that? Hilmar is a small town and we want to keep it a small town.”
Gomes’ daughter, Gina Montgomery, posted to Facebook, “There are many opposing this project for many reasons, mainly the influx to our schools and to Lander Ave.”
Montgomery also pointed out the recently-approved subdivision near Bloss Avenue, which will bring another 150 new homes to the area.
According to Anderson, he represented JKB Living at a Hilmar-Stevinson Municipal Advisory Council meeting last month, where about 50 community members showed up to oppose the complex.
“There are a number of issues that the community is concerned with,” he said. “With any impact, or any growth within that community, the perception is that it impacts them, it hurts or impedes traffic and hurts the schools.
“In all of our towns, as they grow, they have these growth pains. It’s not just this project, it’s also the newer residential projects that, cumulatively, are the issue. I get it, but it’s a brown field development. We’re not reaching out into new agricultural lands here – this is in the heart of the town.”
In addition to expansion worries, community members have also posted on social media about the complex potentially becoming Section 8 Housing, and also brought the issue up at the MAC meeting.
“There was a mention of Section 8, and that’s way, way far from what we’re trying to do with these apartments,” said Anderson. “With social media, it’s easy for the wrong information to get out. It’s a small town, and because of that the rumor mills get going.”
Anderson’s presentation of photos and plans for the Poquito Luxury Apartments at the meeting was not enough to sway Gomes, who was encouraged to begin gathering signatures for a petition against the complex after speaking with District 4 County Supervisor Lloyd Pareira, who said a document representing the wishes of the community could sway the Board’s decision.
“Yeah, of course it could help,” said Pareira. “Each community has the right to have their community be what they want it to be.
“Hilmar is a unique community and they want it to stay unique,” he added. “Mr. Brenda bought the property zoned as Quasi-Public, and if he wants to change that then he’s got to get the community to buy in.”
The Board of Supervisors does not advocate for or against projects, said Pareira, as long as they meet the criteria set forth by the community’s general plan.
“He needs to work with the community and make sure it’s something they want,” he said.
According to Anderson, JKB Living has compromised with communities in the past. For example, the apartment complex the organization developed in Ripon was originally supposed to have balconies along the building’s western edge, but because the complex was built next to a subdivision of one-story homes, community members complained and the balconies in question were removed from the plans.
“There are design things you can do with a project to help mitigate the impacts on the community,” said Anderson. “To counter some of the major issues, we are going to include a DA binding contractual agreement between the Board of Supervisors and the landowner, meaning whoever owns the land now or in the future is under obligation to adhere to those standards.”
The contract will help ease concerns community members have with management concerns, said Anderson – mainly, what would happen should someone else other than Brenda purchase the property, and thus, the complex, someday.
“We want to bring that kind of stuff forward so it’s clear to everyone up front that these are the game rules,” said Anderson. “We’re listening to the community, but it really seems like they don’t want any growth.”
In July, the Merced County Planning Commission approved initial studies for the general plan amendment, zone change and development agreement for the project, which will be used as reference when the commission makes its final decision in the spring.
Gomes plans to send the community petition to the Planning Commission as well as the Board of Supervisors, and hopes to fill the Water District Office with community members in opposition to the apartment complex on Dec. 5, when JKB Living comes before the water board to renew its conditional approval letter – something that must be done every six months.
“They’re not moving ahead with this. We’re not going to let them move anywhere,” said Gomes. “We’re not going to let them do it. Period.”