The residents of Rolling Hills have long known their days of quiet isolation were numbered.
For decades, the invisible threat to their tucked-away neighborhood in unincorporated Madera County three miles north of Fresno was known as Gateway Village.
Today it’s called Riverstone — and it’s no longer invisible. From Bryant “Bear” Johnston’s front yard, rows of new rooftops have replaced all but a thin strip of olive trees. As the 2,000-acre “master-planned community” continues to build out, more and more adjacent farmland will give way to suburban streets and backyards.
In time, the 300 ranch-style houses on large lots with mature trees that make up Rolling Hills could be surrounded by development on three sides (Riverstone to the north and west, Gunner Ranch to the south) and Business 41 on the other.
Rolling Hills residents have valued their relative seclusion and semi-rural lifestyle. For many, it’s the reason they moved there. Soon enough, however, they’ll be encircled by what Madera County officials project will be a new city of 120,000 people.
“We’ve been hearing about (development) for as long as I can remember,” said Johnston, a retired Clovis Unified teacher, coach and athletic director who moved to Rolling Hills in the early 1990s.
“But all of a sudden they were building things and tearing down olive trees. It was like, ‘OK, here we go.’”
Although Riverstone is just at the beginning stages of what will eventually become 6,578 houses and condos spread over eight districts, the impacts of growth are already being felt.
Traffic on Highway 41 and Avenue 12, the main road leading to the unincorporated community of Madera Ranchos (estimated population 8,600) was congested before any new rooftops went up.
But now, some residents describe the situation as “horrible.” In the afternoon, traffic on Highway 41 north at the Avenue 12 signal light backs up more than two miles, all the way to Valley Children’s Hospital. In turn, this has caused many Riverstone home buyers to exit at Valley Children’s and take Business 41 to reach their homes, which has resulted in more cars driving through the Rolling Hills neighborhood.
Things have gotten so bad that Rolling Hills resident Renee Silveria had to allow 30 extra minutes for her morning commute. What used to be a 45- to 50-minute drive to Merced now takes between 75 and 90 — in part thanks to the 10 minutes she must wait each morning to make a left turn onto Avenue 12 from Business 41.
“That left turn used to be easy,” Silveria said. “Now it’s just crazy.”
Besides the influx of new homeowners, the controversial Austin Quarry project located near the intersection of Highways 41 and 145 approved by the Madera County Board of Supervisors in 2016 will add more semi-truck traffic to area roadways.
“Highway 41 should have been widened before any houses were built,” said Bruce Gray of the Madera Oversight Coalition, an Oakhurst-based citizen’s group.
Development pays for roadwork
While sensitive to those complaints, county officials insist that without development there would be no way for the cash-strapped county to fund road improvement projects.
An environmental impact report on a plan to widen 6.1 miles of Highway 41 into four lanes between just south of Avenue 11 to a mile north of Avenue 15 is expected to be completed by year’s end, Caltrans project manager Chris Gardner said.
Construction of the two additional lanes could begin as soon as 2021 and be completed in 2023.
“The state is not putting a dime toward that,” said Madera County Supervisor Brett Frazier, a Riverstone resident.
Why not? Essentially, Caltrans considers the Highway 41 widening as a “capacity-increasing project” made necessary due to local demand and not interregional.
“Even though it goes to Yosemite (National Park),” Madera County Planning Director Matthew Treber said.
Eventually, Highway 41 is envisioned as a six-lane freeway from the Fresno County border all the way to Highway 145.
“But that’s 30 to 40 years down the road,” Treber said.
In the meantime, county officials created two special financing districts to pay for the Highway 41 widening, improvements to Avenue 12 and Business 41 as well as a regional sports park. One is for Riverstone and the other covers Tesoro Viejo, a 1,600-acre development a few miles to the north.
The financing districts are funded solely from a 25% share of county property tax increments for the next 45 years. Riverstone is totaled at $66 million and Tesoro Viejo at $59 million.
“(Highway) 41 has needed improvements for a decade, and the only way we’re going to get there is through development,” Frazier said.
Noise, dust and property crime
Besides traffic, Rolling Hills residents have experienced an increase in noise, dust and property crime. (They also recently voted to privatize their water system following three years of severe watering restrictions, but that’s another story.)
While most don’t expressly point the finger at Riverstone, the uptick in car break-ins, mail theft and strangers driving through their neighborhood coincided with nearby growth.
“We never had the crime we do now,” Silveria said. “Until they started building all those houses, I don’t think people realized we were out here.”
Three times during the last two years, Silveria says she’s had her car broken into. She’s also had property stolen from her front yard and replaced her old mailbox with a newer, locking version.
“We catch people going through mailboxes every Sunday morning,” she said. “I can tell you everybody on my block has been hit one way or another.”
Johnston, who lives on the north end of Rolling Hills, can hear construction workers hammering and the beeping of trucks from inside his house starting at dawn. Residents whose homes are closer to Business 41 and its two gas stations with mini-marts, boat and RV dealerships and other offices hear more road noise.
Six years ago, Aaron Dickson moved his family from the Figarden Loop in northwest Fresno to a house in Rolling Hills that backs up to one of the gas stations.
At first, that wasn’t an issue. But as more and more people started filling up after dark, the station’s owner installed brighter security lights.
“It looks like Lambeau Field in my backyard,” said Dickson, in reference to the Green Bay Packers’ stadium.
Growth has its positives too
Despite the negative impacts, many Rolling Hills residents I spoke to are not opposed to the nearby growth.
On the southwest corner of Highway 41 and Avenue 12, Riverstone is breaking ground on a 50-acre retail and commercial project called the Riverwalk Marketplace.
Dickson, for one, looks forward to being able to go grocery shopping or take his family to a restaurant without having to drive to Fresno.
“That’s super exciting to us,” he said.
Others are more skeptical about what will actually get built.
“It might be a little more convenient to go to the corner store, but major shopping, I just don’t see it,” said Art Hughes, a Rolling Hills resident since 1985.
Other positives shouldn’t be ignored, either. The area has better fire coverage thanks to the addition of a full-time position, funded by Riverstone, to its neighborhood fire station. More stations and positions, both fire and sheriff, will be required as the development grows.
In addition, Rolling Hills residents anticipate a bump in their property values. Which, in spite of the drawbacks of growth, no one is complaining about.
“I tell people all the time I’m less than five minutes from River Park, and I don’t have to live in Fresno,” Hughes said.
Technically, he’s right. Even though this once hidden, out-of-the-way enclave will look and feel more like Fresno soon enough.
Editor’s note: This is the third in an ongoing series of columns by Marek Warszawski examining new growth in southern Madera County.