It didn’t take long for people to express their opinions after the Tuolumne County Planning Commission approved a 16,000-square-foot commercial center near Columbia Wednesday night.
“Go back to Modesto!” shouted one man.
“You’ll be challenged,” said another, warning the decision would be appealed.
Opponents have 10 days to ask the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors to take up the matter.
The commission voted 5-0 to approve a mitigated negative declaration and site development permit that would allow the project to move forward. Commissioners John LaTorre and Mike Gustafson were not in attendance.
The project, called the Stone Mill Center, would consist of three buildings for a combined total of 16,000 square feet of commercial space at the northwest corner of the intersection.
Tenants could include a prompt care, dental office, restaurant, deli, hardware store, or other general-commercial retail businesses, according to the application submitted by the developer, Columbia Union LLC.
About 50 people showed up for the 6 p.m. meeting at the County Administration Center in Sonora. Four people spoke in favor of the project, while 21 were opposed.
Ron Kopf, a local development consultant and member of the Tuolumne Utilities District Board of Directors, spoke on behalf of developer.
In an interview prior to the meeting, Kopf said he believes the project would benefit Columbia’s economy by providing jobs and more places for tourists to go.
Columbia’s unemployment rate was 10.4 percent in November, according to data available from California Employment Development Department. That was nearly twice the rate of Tuolumne County as a whole (5.7 percent) and more than double the statewide rate (5 percent) for that month.
“When you look at the economics of Columbia, it needs vitality,” he said. “Columbia is also losing population and the demographic is getting older, so I’m not sure what they think they’re accomplishing is working.”
Kopf also said a prompt care in the area would benefit the community. He said it would be occupied by Sonora Regional Medical Center under a prearranged agreement. The nearest prompt-care centers for people in Columbia are in either Angels Camp and East Sonora.
One speaker opposed to the project said they were told the hospital hadn’t agreed to a lease on the property if constructed. Kopf confirmed there is signed lease with the hospital and referred to an April 2016 letter to the county from SRMC President and CEO Andrew Jahn that stated:
“The proposed development at Union Hill Road and Parrotts Ferry Road provides Sonora Regional Medical Center with the opportunity to meet that need for prompt and primary care services for Columbia, and surrounding area residents, in a new and attractive facility within the proposed shopping center.”
Kopf addressed the main points of contention from opponents who wrote responses to the county, including traffic safety concerns, competition to businesses in Columbia State Historic Park and questions over the ownership of the property.
With regard to traffic, Kopf pointed to a county project currently underway to make intersection improvements at Parrotts Ferry Road and Highway 49 (commonly referred to as the “Pedro Y”) that Caltrans has determined would mitigate impacts from the development on the state highway.
The project would turn the “Y” into more of “T” by eliminating the existing free right-turn lane from Highway 49 onto Parrotts Ferry Road, widening the roadway to accommodate a right-turn lane and constructing a northbound left-turn lane on Parrotts Ferry Road at Union Hill Road.
According to public documents, the project is estimated to cost about $565,000 to construct. About 90 percent of the cost is planned to come from the Federal Highway Administration’s Highway Safety Improvement Program and 10 percent from local funds.
Community Resources Agency Director Bev Shane said the intersection project was slated for construction this year, but confusion over the environmental-review process that’s still being sorted out between the state and federal government could lead to a delay.
Kopf said prior to the meeting that he doesn’t believe the commercial center would drive business away from Columbia State Historic Park, a concern cited in a letter to the county by Jess Cooper, the Central Valley district superintendent for the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
“We’re not going to have a candle shop or blacksmith shop, but we’ll have some restaurants and they will work in synergy together (with other businesses in Columbia),” Kopf said. “When you go to Murphys, you see a number of wineries and restaurants and they all work in concert with each other to bring more people to that area.”
Many of the questions surrounding the land’s ownership stem from concerns about developers potentially trying to piecemeal other projects on adjacent properties together, which is forbidden by the California Environmental Quality Act.
Kopf said the land is owned by Golden State Holdings LLC. County documents stated that the company’s principal is Bruce Ritchie, who has a valid mailing address in Hawthorne, Oregon.
The company previously worked with developer Gary Simning, of RC Equities, who proposed an 80-unit apartment complex on land the company owns across Union Hill Road from the current proposal.
A group called Citizens for Responsible Growth sued the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors in 2013 for approving the project without an environmental impact report, which looks at significant impacts on the environment that can’t be lessened by mitigation measures.
Simning withdrew his application after the filing of the lawsuit.
In August 2015, Simning went before the Tuolumne County Airport Land Use Commission to determine if he would be allowed to develop a shopping center and multi-story hotel on 10 acres adjacent to the land targeted for the Stone Mill Center due to the area’s proximity to Columbia Airport.
County officials say Simning hasn’t submitted any formal plans since that time.
Kopf said the piecemealing point is moot because the land is all owned by a single entity, but the developers are separate entities. He declined to reveal any of the players behind Columbia Union LLC, referring to them only as an investment group.
Many others at Wednes day night’s meeting, however, didn’t see it the same way as Kopf.
“You need to see the big picture and not a piece,” said Sharon Marovich, representing the Tuolumne Heritage Committee. “Please give serious consideration to the will of the Columbia community which cares deeply about this special place in Tuolumne County.”
Marilyn Fullam , of the Citizens for Responsible Growth, read a letter from the group stating they believed the project was “another attempt” to piecemeal development in the area.
Claudia Carlson, owner of a grocery store in Columbia, was one of the hundreds of county residents who successfully fought against the development of a Dollar General store less than a half-mile from the entrance to the historic park last year.
Carlson said there aren’t unlimited dollars to go around in a Columbia, a town with a population of less than 3,000. She also questioned the purpose of the commission in response to some members who have said it’s not the role of the government body to pick winners and losers.
“I know you say you aren’t here to decide what business goes where, but isn’t that exactly your job?” she asked.
Barbara Balen, who also serves on the TUD board and fought against the Dollar General project in Columbia, suggested taking another look at policies that encourage infill development along the corridor to the historic state park.
“We need a course correction now if our signature rural character is to remain unique,” she said.
Some complained that the design of the buildings — which were done by an architect based in Scottsdale, Arizona, one of the state’s wealthiest suburbs — didn’t match the rest of those in Columbia.
Commissioner Jerry Baker disagreed.
“It seems that beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” he said. “I look at that and see a replica of a number of our small towns. I can see Groveland and Jamestown there.”
Shane reminded the commission is only supposed to consider aspects of the project such as the design, architecture and layout when coming to the decision on approving a site development permit.
The land is zoned for commercial uses in the county’s current General Plan that was last updated in 1996.
All five commissioners present voted to approve the project. Commissioner Peter Rei voted against a recent Dollar General project proposed in the community of Lake Don Pedro, but he said this situation is different.
“These folks have followed all of the rules,” Rei said. “I can understand the reaction, and I appreciate the concerns of the community, but I’m afraid in this particular case the burden of proof has been met. I honestly don’t have a problem approving the project.”
This story has been edited to correct Marilyn Fullam's name.