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Water a key point in Madera County's Gunner Ranch debate

Just where water will come from for the proposed Gunner Ranch West project was a key sticking point Tuesday that delayed action by the Madera County Board of Supervisors.

Rather than make a decision, the supervisors put off a vote until a meeting in September.

Among those questioning the project's water supply was the Madera County Farm Bureau, whose executive director told the board the timing for the project's approval was poor, given the ongoing drought and worries about future supplies for growers.

The project, by landowner and developer Richard Gunner, would turn 1,000 acres of orchards and open space along the Madera-Fresno county line off of Highway 41 into a nearly 3,000-home community.

As many as 8,500 people would move to the area under the proposed Gunner Ranch West plan, and nearly as many jobs would be created with anticipated offices, shops, schools and extension of Children's Hospital Central California.

None of those aspects were the focus of the discussion Tuesday, however. Most of the attention was paid to water.

Concern was heightened after approval of three other major residential plans on Madera County's side of the San Joaquin River, paving the way for as many as 35,000 new homes to tap area water supplies.

Supervisor Manuel Nevarez, who represents the area where the project would be built, said he supports the Gunner Ranch West plan, but sees water as a major issue.

"We're not singling out the project, we're starting to set a standard for across the board," Nevarez said.

That standard is known as net zero. County Planning Director Norman Allinder said that by following a net zero usage requirement -- meaning that for every gallon pumped out, a gallon will be pumped back in -- the project should have no major impact on water usage.

Gunner has proposed taking the water he would have put onto his orchards and redirecting it into his project.

The Madera County Planning Commission has recommended approval of the Gunner Ranch West plan, but agreed with critics that there is too little ground water for the project to proceed on wells alone.

If needed, Gunner proposes to purchase additional supplies from a water district.

"We should be fine because we're impacting less," Allinder said. "You can fallow agricultural land if water runs out, you cannot fallow a community or a city if the water runs out."

One of the opponents of the project was the Farm Bureau.

Anja Raudabaugh, the bureau's executive director, supports the job creation and hospital expansion that would occur in Gunner's plan. But she said that this isn't the right time for the project.

"It's a bad time of year, bad season, bad drought season," she said. "If you don't have water, you don't have jobs or prosperity."

The Gunner Ranch West plan will also include 72 acres for a medical campus and 58 acres for open space and parks.

Gunner, one of Fresno's biggest real estate developers, declined to comment until after the board votes on the project. The discussion will resume Sept. 17.