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Fire district upset about home plan
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LATHROP – It was the last piece of the puzzle.

River Islands, which would develop on the south side of the San Joaquin River, would mark the landmark expansion of the city and usher in a new era of development. On the other side of the water, a handful of developers would transform the desolate farmland into the new core of the city.

A new fire station would be built there. A new city hall would go up.

And further down, a new high school would be the anchor portion of the Richland Planned Communities project that was supposed to extend the development on the west side of I-5 much further north.

Unfortunately very few parts of that last project ever came to fruition before the Richland project collapsed and kicked off a firestorm of lawsuits from subcontractors alleging money owed and invoices not paid. It was a tangled web that took almost three years to sort through.

But the fallout stretched beyond just a lawsuit and valuable time for city staffers looking to wade through the legalese.

Just a month before Lathrop High School was supposed to open, the subcontractor that was building the sewer lift station went before the Manteca Unified School District board and informed them that the sewer lift station that was under construction wouldn’t be completed before the first students arrived on campus, and that work was going to stop because he was owed more than $1 million in back pay.

Trustees were furious.

A letter from then Lathrop mayor Kristy Sayles essentially guaranteed that everything would be in place by the time the school went to open, and the news blindsided officials.

Things, however, are changing.

A new development company – Saybrook LLC – has submitted plans to construct 430 homes on part of the failed Richland property. As a condition of the development agreement, the company has agreed to finish the sewer lift station that will serve the area prior to the start of construction.

The 94.4-acres site – a triangular piece of property located within Spartan Way, Golden Valley Parkway and Land Park Drive – will consist of lots that range from 4,000 to 7,000 square-feet and will include nearly 5-acres of park space.

Lathrop High School has been on a septic system since it opened. Waste has been trucked out.

The addition of 430 homes to the area would likely force the hand of the school district in constructing Ethel Allen Elementary. It is a project that has been conceptually discussed since development the property first came about.

The district said earlier this year that it still has plans to construct the school, but has no timetable for building it.

Clearing the hurdles regarding funding for fire and police protection, however, wasn’t an easy one.

Lathrop-Manteca Fire District Chief Gene Neely told the planning commission that he was concerned that the information contained in the Environmental Impact Report didn’t necessarily quantify that the necessary mechanisms are set in stone.

Discussions, he said, at city hall have included talks of reworking the language in the development agreement that was initially signed in 2004 when Richland. Such a move would require the approval of the city council, but Neely said that he wasn’t privy to the information or the discussions that have been taking place at the city level.

That led to a terse exchange with some of the commissioners as well as city staffers that were there to advise the commission.

When Community Development Director Rebecca Willis called a point of order when Neely was questioning the commission – informing him that the portion of the meeting in which he was speaking was meant for testimony and not for him to grill the commission – it led to a brief, yet tense verbal sparring that set a tone that carried through the rest of the meeting.

“We have to ask the question of whether fire service is being provided appropriately in that area, or if it’s going to continue in that area,” Neely said – noting that it’s a unique situation since roads have already been built and the City of Lathrop is already constructing a facility across the street from Lathrop High School. “There are a couple of CFDs (community facilities districts) in place, to cover that, but none of those questions have been answered.

“So it seems a little bit premature that we’re getting vested, tentative approve maps when none of that stuff has been worked out, and I think it has kind of brushed under at this point.”

According to Neely, the construction that would take place in that area would fall outside of the four-minute response time based on computerized modeling that he has done.

In the eyes of the staff, as well as some of the commissioners, those numbers didn’t compute asLMFD has a fire station within a mile of the proposed construction area, and the Environmental Impact Report that Neely was referencing from 2004 was initially certified to serve 7,000 homes. That’s a far cry, in the eyes of Willis, from the 430 that Saybrook is proposing. Neely took offense to that.

“I know that Rebecca has extensive experience in community development, but she does not have experience with fire delivery,” he said. “I do.”

That didn’t fly well with some in the audience.

According to City Manager Steve Salvatore, Neely and the fire district have been apprised of nearly every aspect of the project and have been asked for their critiques and their input on a variety of issues that were outside of the scope of practice of Lathrop’s municipal planners.

“He has been thoroughly involved in this project and for him to show up tonight, without a phone call to me, to let me know he has issues with this project, is not in the spirit of cooperation of the fire district or the city,” Salvatore said. “I want the planning commission to know that. He has been involved all the way through – he can have all of the information he wants.

“If he comes and gets it, he can have it.”

The commission unanimously approved the project.