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County tables decision on Columbia apartments

The fate of an 80-unit apartment complex in Columbia won’t be decided until at least May, according to the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors.

After a lengthy public hearing with dozens of people lining up to support and oppose the Stonewood Sonora apartment project, members of the board opted to give county staff more time to consider questions, concerns and possible legal issues that have been raised by the community. The board will take up the proposal again during an evening meeting on May 7.

The complex would consist of six housing buildings, a clubhouse, pool, and covered and uncovered parking on about five acres located at Parrotts Ferry and Union Hill roads. It calls for a mix of one- and two-bedroom apartments, and plans also indicate the property could house some retail businesses.

Developers RC Equities and Golden State Holdings are seeking to change the zoning from commercial to mixed use, with a small amount of open space, and also are seeking a special use permit from the county. The Columbia Area Planning Commission earlier this month rejected the developers’ request, leading to an appeal and Tuesday’s hearing.

RC Equities partner Gary Simning also said on Tuesday that the apartment complex is part of a plan to develop almost 20 acres that would include nearby retail stores. He called the project “a positive development for Tuolumne County, as well as Columbia,” stating it would fill a need for quality rental housing.

“I think this is a good deal. Quite frankly, I don’t know why people are so opposed to it. It baffles me, it really does,” he said.

Those opposed raised myriad concerns on Tuesday — from environmental to economic. Critics questioned how it would impact the local water supply, storm-water runoff, traffic and public safety.

“This project seems inappropriate for both the county and the site,” said Sue Williams, a Columbia-area resident. “If the people in Columbia didn’t want this project, I don’t think it should happen, because they’re the ones that live there.”

Limestone rock formations on the property were also discussed. Apartment opponents have pointed to the natural limestone formations on the one-time hydraulic mining site as historically significant. 

“This is part of community identity in Columbia,” said Sharon Marovich, of the Tuolumne County Heritage Committee.

Supporters of the project Tuesday countered that the project would provide an economic boost to the county, including temporary construction jobs.

Mark Banks, who spoke for the Tuolumne County Building Industry, said this county is “woefully lacking” in projects like this.

“If we stop growth now at this point, that means all of us are going to have to carry a heavier burden,” Banks said.

One of the supporters included Bill Canning, a Sonora City Councilman and building contractor. Canning, who’ll oversee project construction, said he wanted to “clear the record” on rumors he’s heard about his relationship with newly elected members of the Tuolumne Utilities District.

Critics contend Canning is leveraging his TUD board connections to get the district to lower sewer and water hookup fees.

Canning in 2012 was part of an effort to recall three of the five-member board. He also supported the election campaign of Mike Sarno, current TUD board president.

Canning said he’d “been working to get TUD to drop their rates” before the new board was elected. He also said he’s been up front about his association with the project.

The TUD board, he said, is considering the fee cut to “spur economic development in Tuolumne County.”

The county supervisors said little during the hearing that lasted more than two hours.

Chairman Randy Hanvelt cited legal questions for tabling a decision.

Bev Shane, director of the Community Resources Agency, said an attorney with local organization Citizens for Responsible Growth sent a letter to the county pushing for a more thorough environmental review.

Hanvelt said the county also received other late legal questions that they want to answer.

“I can’t remember something, at least in the last few months, that has generated this much interest,” Hanvelt said.

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