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Old agreement on growth clouds new deal between city of Fresno, Madera County

Here's a curveball for city of Fresno officials trying to broker an agreement with Madera County over growth: There's already a five-year-old plan in place from a previous dust-up.

And that's left some, notably officials in Madera County, wondering why they should bother with a whole new deal.

The issue is the latest in the clash between the city's efforts to develop the inner-city and attempts by others to build on the fringe.

City leaders have offered to drop their current lawsuit against Madera County over a housing development they see as sprawl. The stipulation is that the county works with the city on a new, mutually acceptable plan for how the region should grow.

An earlier attempt to patch things up came in the form of a 2008 planning study that called for a major investment in roads and bridges, which supported both Fresno's and Madera County's growth agendas.

The study arose from the settlement of a lawsuit that the city pursued against Madera County -- yes, deja vu -- over a development known as Central Green. The development, which never got off the ground, is near the 5,200-home Tesoro Viejo project that the city is suing over today.

As part of the 2006 Central Green settlement, the parties agreed to do a comprehensive study of the region's growth and transportation needs, then find ways to finance the necessary infrastructure. Fresno County, which had sided with the city, also signed the agreement.

The three got as far as doing the study and paying a quarter million dollars for it. But no one acted on the study's recommendations, nor figured out the financing.

"This prior plan should be revisited so that we are not reinventing the wheel," said Madera County Planning Director Norm Allinder, "especially when so much work has been done and money has been spent."

Madera County officials are expected to respond to the city's demand for new growth talks (from the settlement offer), but they declined to comment in advance. It's likely, though, the county will suggest to the city that the two re-examine the recommendations in the 2008 report.

City Hall officials declined to comment for this story. They said they did not want to discuss issues that involved litigation.

But it's fairly certain that the study's recommendations don't fall into favor at City Hall.

Read the 2006 settlement and 2008 study:

The report, officially called the San Joaquin River Transportation Study, largely supports sweeping development on Fresno's outskirts, and this runs counter to the city's recent commitment to redirecting growth away from its edges and into its blighted downtown.

The study projects vigorous population growth in the greater Fresno area and proposes a huge infrastructure expansion to accommodate it.

The study recommends another bridge across the San Joaquin River, a major east-west route from the Friant area to Highway 99 and extension of north-south Highway 65 along the foothills near Porterville into Fresno County.

Officials in Madera and Fresno counties say they backed away from the study because its recommendations were certain to generate controversy and came at significant expense.

Plus, there was the downturn in the housing market, which dimmed the mood for growth.

"These are not easy issues to resolve, especially when you start talking about sharing financial resources," said Fresno County Supervisor Henry Perea.

One of the options proposed in the study, prepared by a San Francisco-based planner, was estimated to cost nearly $400 million.

While the 2006 legal settlement between the city and the counties called for the study as well as a subsequent financing plan for infrastructure, the settlement doesn't appear to bind the parties to completing the work.

"It's kind of a face-saving move or temporary truce," said Fresno land-use attorney Sara Hedgpeth-Harris, commenting not on this specific settlement but on how most are done.

Like so many government reports, Hedgpeth-Harris said the parties are prone to support the findings only as much as the findings support their interests.

As for the city's interests, they changed with last year's commitment to revitalizing the downtown.

The cities of Clovis and Madera were also sponsors of the 2008 study.

Hedgpeth-Harris said she's optimistic that the region's latest rumblings over growth can prompt a compromise that sticks.

There are signs that this could happen: Not only is the city wanting to start talks with Madera County but Fresno and Madera counties are meeting about growth issues.

Still, the parties remain far apart in what they want.

The city sued Madera County last year for approving the Tesoro Viejo project, fearing it would be the first of many across the county line that would lure residents and developers away from the city's core.

Madera County retaliated with a suit over Fresno's proposed El Paseo business and entertainment complex on Herndon Avenue off Highway 99.

The city has also sued Fresno County, which is no longer opposed to Madera County's growth plans and is pursuing its own residential and commercial projects near Millerton Lake.

All told, more than 100,000 people could one day live in the open areas north of the city.