Concerns over water supplies at a proposed 2,840-home development in southern Madera County prompted the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to send the project back to staff for further review.
After a motion to pass the Gunner Ranch West project failed with a 3-2 vote, a follow-up vote to send the proposal back to county staff passed 4-1.
"You can see our dilemma here -- we want to do the right thing," Board Chairman Max Rodriguez said after a couple hours of back-and-forth debate over water-shortage fears and the desire for economic growth. "It's too huge a project to decide today. It really needs more information."
The move to send the project back to staff comes in the wake of three other approved developments, paving the way for as many as 35,000 new homes in Madera County.
Gunner Ranch would cover more than 2 million square-feet for residential and commercial development, along with more than 1 million square-feet for hospital-related services associated with nearby Children's Hospital Central California.
While the planning department recommended the project's approval, supervisors were not confident about how much water the project would need and where it would come from.
Landowner and developer Richard Gunner spoke briefly, answering a question about whether he'd be willing to purchase water, if necessary: "We would consider it, in accordance with all the other measures."
Supervisor David Rogers was strongly opposed to the project. If water disappears, it will be "ghost everything," he said, wrapping up a long, scary list including "ghost project," "ghost agriculture" and "ghost town."
Home construction contributes to the county's economy, Rogers said, but it is not an economic base. Madera County's No. 1 industry is still agriculture, he said.
Supervisor Manuel Nevarez, whose district includes the project, said he strongly supports Gunner Ranch. He noted that "95% of all groundwater used in this county is used by ag."
As of Tuesday, a date had not been set for a return vote on the project.