Thursday, January 15, 2009

Madera County Development Lawsuit Settled

A huge 6,600-home development in south Madera County just west of Highway 41 is one step closer to construction now that environmentalists and developers have agreed to settle a lawsuit, an attorney said Wednesday.

The settlement allows the project to move forward in exchange for a promise from developers Castle & Cooke to donate $1 million toward improving Madera County's planning process.

Ultimately, the money may go back to the environmental group that sued the developers, and that group could use the money to file more lawsuits against future developments.

Castle & Cooke's Gateway Village project could one day house about 21,000 people near Highway 41 and Avenue 12. It is among a handful of developments that are part of a long-planned community in the Rio Mesa area where county leaders expect as many as 100,000 people eventually will live.

But the Rio Mesa plan was drawn up 14 years ago -- when Madera County leaders had hoped the University of California would build its next school there and when there were not nearly as many people on the other side of the San Joaquin River in north Fresno County. County planners, however, insist the plan is still usable.

The Madera Oversight Coalition, an environmental and health advocacy group, disagreed and sued to stop the development in 2002, said the group's attorney, Patience Milrod. The suit was settled in 2005 after developers altered their project to address the coalition's air quality and water supply concerns. The new plan was approved by the Board of Supervisors in 2007.

But, Milrod said, the revised project still had flaws, so the coalition sued again in January 2008. The parties reached a settlement last month and a judge approved it last week, she said.

In the agreement, the coalition promises not to sue the project again. Castle & Cooke, meanwhile, agreed to give $1 million to the Oakland-based Rose Foundation, a nonprofit group that focuses on community and environmental issues.

The money must be used to advocate for effective planning in Madera County and help government agencies improve their planning process, according to the settlement. That includes possibly paying for any future lawsuits filed by the Madera Oversight Coalition, said Tim Little, the foundation's executive director.

Madera County or another government agency could also apply for the money as long as it's used to rewrite the Rio Mesa plan or improve county planning.

But that appears unlikely. Milrod said the coalition initially asked the county to accept the $1 million and use it to update the Rio Mesa plan, but the county refused to do so.
- From the Fresno Bee

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