Marek Warszawski

Why does Clovis keep growing and building more houses on prime ag land? Blame me

They are the longest-standing residents on my block: two majestic deodar cedar trees believed to be more than 100 years old.

On the northern outskirts of Clovis, where rural and residential meet, they grow behind iron gates beside an old ranch house that no one’s lived in for years.

Their towering, twisting branches drew my eye the day I moved in and hundreds of times since, but only recently did I learn anything about them or the unoccupied house.

For tree admirers like me, the news isn’t good. A proposal making its way through the pipeline would raze the entire property, majestic century-old deodars and everything else still standing, and build a cul-de-sac with 10 houses.

That project, approved in May by the Clovis Planning Commission, is puny compared to what’s taking place a quarter-mile up the street, where acres of almond trees along Shepherd Avenue were ripped out to make way for what will eventually be 586 new homes.

The first phase of Heritage Grove, one of three “urban centers” identified in the Clovis General Plan (Harlan Ranch and Loma Vista are the others), marks the city’s initial advance north of Shepherd. Which seems significant, even if it was inevitable.

And that’s not all. Directly across Shepherd – and right out my back fence – the same homebuilder (Lennar) wants to put up a mixed-density development of 139 homes on 23 mostly undeveloped acres.

Three residential housing projects in Clovis’ newest growth area, to which I’ve been granted a front-row seat.

Here comes the neighborhood.

‘Pressures from growth will continue’

Why does Clovis need to grow? Why couldn’t it stay a small town? Why keep sacrificing prime ag land in the name of sprawl?

The short answer is because of people like me. Who decided to buy a house where peach trees stood not all that long ago. By the looks of things, I’m not the only one.

“We have a growing population and the pressures from growth are going to continue until our population stops growing,” Clovis Planning Director Dwight Kroll said. “Do you just roll up the drawbridge? I don’t think you can.”

Clovis is growing. There’s no debate about that. More than 3,100 people moved to town in 2018 bringing the current population to 117,003, according to the California Department of Finance, and making Clovis the second-fastest growing city in the state (by percentage) among those with at least 100,000 residents.

All those folks have to live somewhere.

Clovis has already been in hot water with state regulators for its dearth of affordable housing and stood to lose millions in housing funds. City officials avoided that fate by zoning several vacant lots for high-density.

But most of Clovis’ recent growth, in Harlan Ranch, Loma Vista and now Heritage Grove doesn’t fit this mold. These are homebuyers willing and able to afford properties that generally exceed the city’s median sales price of $326,000. (Fresno’s is $249,800, by comparison.)

“People are willing to pay more to come to Clovis because of the school district, because of the safety services,” Kroll said. “I’d like to say because of the planning even though I don’t know if that’s the case. But I’d like to think so because when people are possessive of their neighborhoods it’s because they like them.”

I got a taste of that during a recent meeting about the proposed Lennar project beyond my back fence. Those living on the opposite side of the vacant lot, in houses worth more than twice as much as mine, complained about the prospect of increased traffic and their home values being driven down by a mixed-density development.

‘A wonderful place to grow up’

Listening to their concerns made me wonder about what things were like in my neighborhood before “progress” encroached. I wanted to know who planted those beautiful deodar cedars, and who lived in that abandoned ranch house.

I’ve since learned the property used to be part of a 30-acre corn farm along the banks of Dry Creek. The original homesteader, listed as “Ora C Cole” on an old parcel map that Clovis-Big Dry Creek Historical Society President Peg Bos found for me, was a cousin of Clovis Cole, the wheat farmer and city namesake.

It was Ora Cole who likely planted those cedars, perhaps as early as 1905 when he first settled there.

In 1955, the 30 acres were purchased by Larry and Patricia Riordan, who grew walnuts, built the ranch house and raised three children. Much to my surprise, all three still live nearby. Two attended the meeting about the Lennar project.

“It was a wonderful place to grow up,” Vicki Riordan said. “Simply wonderful.”

“When we were kids this was pretty far out in the country,” older sister Terry Riordan Warth added. “We had to ride our horses to go visit our friends.”

Tim Riordan, the youngest of the three, remembers dove and quail hunting on the property, fishing for small bass in Dry Creek, picking wild blackberries and unearthing arrowheads left by migrating Native American tribes.

“The creek right now is kind of like a canal because it’s been squished,” he said. “But not in those days. It was such a neat place to grow up.”

‘We knew it was coming’

The character of the area remained essentially the same until the late 1980s when the Clovis Unified School District purchased a large parcel less than a mile away that became Buchanan High and Alta Sierra Intermediate.

That was the first sign of impending change, according to Judith Preuss who lived with her late husband Charles across the street from the Riordans on what used to be a peach orchard.

“We knew it was coming,” Preuss said. “We were concerned so we geared down the business. We knew we’d eventually have to sell to developers.”

The Riordans held on to their 30 acres until the early 2000s, after Larry Riordan passed away. They sold most of the land – save for a 2.4-acre parcel containing the deodar trees and ranch house – to developer Leo Wilson, who turned the property into a gated community that backs up to the Dry Creek Trail.

“Mom always kept the two acres that had the trees,” Tim Riordan said. “That was not something she was willing to give up. It had the barn on it, as well. I think that gave her a lot of comfort.”

Patricia Riordan died in 2013. Since then the house has sat unoccupied and the grounds largely unmaintained. Nonetheless, orange, lemon, grapefruit and apricot trees planted decades ago (after the walnuts died) continue to bear fruit.

‘It won’t feel rural anymore’

Not until last year did the Riordans sell the remaining acreage to a local developer, Continental Custom Homes. The family hoped the two massive deodars (plus a slightly smaller third one growing nearby) could be spared. However, land surveyor Dale Mell told the Clovis Planning Commission that their shallow root systems would not survive grading and leveling. The latest site plan shows all 17 trees and numerous shrubs designated for removal.

Although much smaller than those nearby, the 10-house development represents another chipping away of the neighborhood’s country character.

“With that many homes being built so close it won’t feel rural anymore,” Terry Riordan Warth said. “The trees helped us keep that feeling, and without the trees and with that many more homes it’s going to feel a little overpowering.”

Clovis has a permitting process for tree removal and will also require the developer to plant some in their place. It’s all spelled out in the Tree Protection Standards contained within the city’s municipal code.

Which is all well and good but leaves me with an unanswerable question:

How do you replace a 120-year-old tree?

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Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.