Madera County is on the verge of a building boom that creates the potential for a Clovis-sized city north and west of the San Joaquin River, with construction starting this spring.
Riverstone is the largest of the approved subdivisions in the Rio Mesa Area Plan. It’s underway on 2,100 acres previously owned by Castle & Cooke on the west side of Highway 41 and north and south of Avenue 12. Castle & Cooke had plans to build there for about 25 years.
It’s the first of several subdivisions in the county’s area plan to be built. Over the past 20 years, Riverstone and other projects were targeted in lawsuits, many of which have been settled, but some still linger. But some critics contend that the new developments will worsen the region’s urban sprawl.
Principal owner Tim Jones’ vision for his nearly 6,600-home development a few miles north of Woodward Park is a subdivision with six separate themed districts. Riverstone will compete for home buyers with southeast Fresno, northwest Fresno, southeast Clovis and a new community planned south and east of Clovis North High School.
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The Rio Mesa Area Plan will result in more than 30,000 homes when built out over 30 years. About 18,000 homes have county approval. The contiguous communities could incorporate to create a new Madera County city that could dwarf the city of Madera and have a population greater than Madera County’s current population of 150,000.
Where we are is the absolute next place for the area to develop to.
Tim Jones, Riverstone principal owner
“It puts another area in play” and will give Madera County residents access to the same amenities enjoyed by north Fresno and Clovis residents, said Mike Prandini, president of the Fresno-Madera Counties Building Industry Association.
Those amenities include quick access to Riverpark offices and shopping or Woodward Park and recreation. The trip to downtown Fresno will take about the same time as the drive from the northern reaches of Fresno or Clovis.
“It will rival what Clovis is doing now,” Prandini said.
In the coming years, an additional 16,000 homes are proposed in Madera County. On the east side of the San Joaquin River, in Fresno County, about 6,800 homes are approved in the area around Friant and Millerton Lake.
Said Jones: “Where we are is the absolute next place for the (Fresno-Madera) area to develop to.”
Jones in 2010 bought the Castle & Cooke land, property that had been proposed for homes under the Gateway Village name. It will ultimately serve up to 6,578 homes. Riverstone also has 280 acres of commercial property, much of it along Highway 41, and will also have a working fruit and vegetable farm.
Each of the six districts will have a community center with pools, exercise rooms and kitchen areas, plus pocket parks and trails. There will no skimping on the project because, Jones said, the company is “building a legacy.”
The working farm on the southern edge of the property retains the community’s heritage, and trails offer recreation.
“We want to have all the amenities of the future with the throwback to the past,” he said.
The land will retain its rolling elevations. Olive trees on the property now will serve as landscaping on roads throughout the subdivision.
Jones said Riverstone is “water-balanced,” meaning it will retrieve as much water as it uses through recharge and treated water for landscaping. It also has a 1 million-gallon drinking water tank.
“We are spending money and doing everything we can to set a new bar,” he said. “I think people will be very impressed.”
McCaffrey Homes will start building on about 175 lots – two of the first three neighborhoods – in the next two months at Riverstone. Utilities are going in, and street work will soon be underway. McCaffrey Homes also owns Tesoro Viejo, a development about three miles north.
6,578Number of homes proposed in Riverstone
At Riverstone, McCaffrey Homes will build homes on 5,500-square-foot lots and 7,700-square-foot lots. Jones said a contract for a second builder for the first phase has not been finalized.
The sizes of the McCaffrey homes at Riverstone are not available, and there is no building schedule. The company, however, will be busy this year with plans also to break ground on Tesoro Viejo.
Hillside Village will be the first neighborhood in Tesoro Viejo, a community in the heart of Rio Mesa, with up to 850 homes built around parks, open spaces, community amenities and three miles of trails. The village will have a community recreation center, a K-8 school and an amphitheater.
When finished, the 1,600-acre development will have a town center and a business park with about 3 million square feet of office and retail space. Four hundred acres will be dedicated to natural open spaces, parks and recreational areas. The community will have up to 5,190 homes.
“In Tesoro Viejo, we are playing a much larger role as the community developer directly involved in the development of the town center and business park, along with the parks, trails and recreation in order to provide a community where residents can live, work and play,” said Brent McCaffrey, president of The McCaffrey Group.
Another 20,000 homes will spring up in the coming decades in Gunner Ranch, North Shore at Millerton, TraVigne and other proposed subdivisions.
Rio Mesa lawsuits
For much of the past decade, the San Joaquin River developments were mired in litigation. The Rio Mesa Area Plan and the Friant area in Fresno County have been the focus.
Riverstone was the first Madera County development to break through the legal haggling.
There are active lawsuits on several new Madera County subdivisions. Others involving the city of Fresno and Madera and Madera County are settled.
The issues are multiple: traffic, air quality, the environment, water, tax-revenue sharing agreements.
And so are the number of groups and entities involved in the past and today: Fresno County, city of Fresno, Caltrans, Madera Oversight Coalition, Revive the San Joaquin River, Madera County Farm Bureau and Valley Children’s Hospital.
Madera County officials say the city of Fresno sued over Rio Mesa seeking a tax-sharing agreement for the development. That was countered by a Madera County lawsuit against the city of Fresno’s approval of the El Paseo shopping center, contending that it “would “pirate millions of dollars from nearby Madera County residents,” said Eric Fleming, county administrative officer.
The city of Fresno and the two counties no longer are involved in the legal fights. Officials say it didn’t make sense to continue them because of the cost to local governments and taxpayers.
Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea said the legal wrangling was counterproductive.
“Everybody was suing each other,” he said. “A driving force for me was for us to stop suing each other and start talking.”
Perea said that Fresno and Fresno County benefited from the housing boom for much of the past 50 to 60 years. And, in the short term, Fresno County will benefit from new homes just over the border, he said.
Everybody was suing each other. A driving force for me was for us to stop suing each other and start talking.
Henry R. Perea, Fresno County supervisor
Residents in the new Madera County subdivisions will spend money in Fresno, and the city doesn’t have the burden of paying for infrastructure and other needs caused by the population of the new developments.
“Many of those folks will drive into Fresno County for jobs and shopping, and we will probably benefit,” he said.
But lawsuits involving other agencies still are pending. Madera County Farm Bureau and the Madera Oversight Coalition still have active lawsuits against Central Green, a project whose owner set aside its building permit to continue farming, said Norm Allinder, Madera County planning director. The farm bureau also has active litigation against Gunner Ranch, the most southerly of all the Madera County developments, near Valley Children’s Hospital.
Fresno County also sued Madera County over the Rio Mesa Area Plan. Eventually the two sides reached a settlement that would require a fee be collected for each developed lot to pay for road widening, traffic signals and other improvements, said Bernard Jimenez, deputy Fresno County planning director.
“I think our board recognizes that Madera County has its authority to plan for its county,” he said. “With Friant Ranch, we (Fresno County) made sure the transportation impacts were mitigated and we wanted them to reciprocate that on the other side.”
Allinder said he was encouraged by Fresno city and county officials’ willingness to meet with Madera County leaders to find common ground for ending the legal battles.
“We have been sitting down and talking about our common issues and keeping a dialogue open,” he said.
Still, environmental groups remain focused on trying to ensure that air, water and species preservation get proper attention.
Chris Acree of Revive the San Joaquin, a group that sued Tesoro Viejo and Gunner Ranch, said the group has had mixed results.
“We have won,” he said of the Tesoro Viejo suit, “but it didn’t forbid development.”
For Gunner Ranch, environmental groups are suing and want assurances the development will “put as much water in recharge as they take out.”
Allinder contends that both Gunner Ranch and Riverstone are not leapfrog development. Both are just north of the San Joaquin River or bordering other development.
“This doesn’t perpetuate the legacy of sprawl,” he said. “Gunner Ranch is contiguous; it’s a logical expansion for urban development.”
Riverstone Village is along a frontage road to Highway 41 that contains businesses, and Rolling Hills Estates homes border the southern edge of the subdivision, Allinder said.
The new Madera County developments will be cutting edge, meeting and exceeding the best projects in Fresno County, including the Clovis master-planned communities of Harlan Ranch and Loma Vista, Allinder said.
We have no intention of being a bedroom community for Fresno.
Norm Allinder, Madera County planning director
Eventually, vehicle miles traveled will drop substantially because many residents will work at Children’s Hospital and the Riverpark office complexes down the road. Riverstone also will contain its own business district and other developments will have zoning for commercial and office space.
“We want to create a place where you live, work and play,” he said, “a place where you don’t have to rely on your automobile.”
He said efforts are underway to attract more jobs because “we have no intention of being a bedroom community for Fresno.”
- West of Highway 41 and Avenue 12.
- Covers 2,100 acres with 6,578 homes.
- Home construction begins in the spring.
Gunner Ranch – 2,840 units
North Shore at Millerton – 2,966
Tesoro Viejo – 5,190
TraVigne – 400
Friant Community Plan – 2,500
Millerton – 3,500
Brighton Crest – 488
Lakeview – 180