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Lessons learned from Mt. Springs

An era ended on Oct. 14, when Tuolumne County supervisors approved the Mountain Springs planned community on a 4-1 vote. The decision ended an at-times bitter public debate that began, incredibly, more than 11 years ago.

To be precise, 4,055 days elapsed between The Union Democrat's first 1997 story on plans for a residential subdivision on acreage surrounding the Mountain Springs golf course and last week's approval of the scaled-down, much-modified development.

This county has seen larger projects and projects that, at least for a time, have produced more fiery rhetoric. But never has a development inspired such sustained emotion and never has consensus seemed so elusive for so long.

Mountain Springs, simply put, became part of our political landscape. It was a constant as the cast of supervisors, planning commissioner, backers and foes surrounding it changed. Year in and year out, it was a reminder of the differences that divide us and, for much of the project's long and stormy tenure, of our apparent inability or unwillingness to compromise.

This, mercifully and thankfully, ended last week with approval of a 600-home development (down from the 2,076 units first proposed), as well as a 35,000-square-foot shopping center and a 200-room hotel.

Teri Murrison, the fourth District 3 supervisor to hold office since the project was introduced, said the board's decision "goes a long way toward healing the community." She's right: Even the lustiest of combatants in this long-running turf war were, no doubt, happy to sheath their invective and even the most detached among us has wearied of the nearly nonstop skirmishes.

That the compromise approved by the board last week was the product of dialogue between both sides rather than a unilateral edict imposed by a county staffer or member of the board was particularly gratifying. What some called "Mountain Springs Lite" emerged from a talks between project developers and members of Voters Choice, a citizens' group formed in the late 1990s for the sole purpose of quashing the project.

In 2001, when the development ground through a series of contentious hearings before planning commissioners and supervisors, such a dialogue would have been hard to imagine. Both sides fought zealously, grudgingly offering concessions to the county and never to each other.

Yes, 500 homes were cut from a version approved by the board in 2001, but Voters Choice didn't blink before moving forward with plans for a ballot referendum aimed at overturning the decision. One member of the group said the challenge would have gone foreward no matter how many homes had been cut from the developers plan.

Voters Choice collected enough signatures to force a referendum, but developers withdrew the approved project rather than take a chance at the polls.

Later a thaw began: In 2003, Mountain Springs spokesman Ron Kopf, appearing at a Voters Choice meeting, conceded that developers "had not done a good job addressing the needs of the community." Then he asked for suggestions from the project's former foes.

Thus were planted the seeds for discussions that more than a month ago yielded the compromise ultimately approved by the county board.

No, not everyone was happy with compromise. There were those on each side, no doubt, who wanted more, or less. Supervisor Mark Thornton voted no.

But discussion and give-and-take by both sides ultimately worked. Developers concede that the ailing economy, an ironic timing consequence of the marathon approval process, will slow building.

But they are nevertheless convinced that Mountain Springs will be good for its investors, good for job creation and good for our local tax base.

If there is a lesson to be learned from this 11-year drama, it's that the kind of dialogue that ultimately led to agreement should begin far earlier.

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