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Drawing a Line in the San Joaquin Valley's Rich Soil : Development: A trio of City Council candidates is pushing an idea that sounds heretical to some of the most powerful people in Clovis: managed growth. The battle is likely to get vicious, says one official.


CLOVIS, Calif. — In this agricultural heartland of California, an endless valley of boom towns, the words "slow growth" are spoken in the whisper of someone confessing heresy.

Behind closed doors, city and Fresno County elected officials concede an unspoken fact of life here: The tract houses swallowing up 20 square miles of prime farmland each year are economic losers, lining the pockets of a few developers and slowly draining city coffers.

But when it comes to voting down the projects in public, critics gripe, these same elected officials turn pussycat. It is the kind of handshake that sprawled Los Angeles, they say. Politicians keep quiet about the realities of growth and developers keep funding their campaigns.

Now, in this rodeo town bent on doubling its size, an unlikely trio of City Council candidates has stepped forward to challenge the boomers and do battle with the most powerful builder in these parts--John Bonadelle, a man who has had his way for nearly half a century.

Under the banner "managed growth," one newcomer and two reformed incumbents want to halt the march of housing projects. They say these cookie-cutter subdivisions, many of them built by Bonadelle and his kin, cost far more in services--sewer, water, police, fire--than they fetch in property taxes.

And when you add in the bad air, tainted drinking water and loss of farmland accompanying growth here, they say, it is just not worth it.

"Clovis keeps approving subdivisions that are economic losers to pay for the loser before it. It's a sure way to bankrupt the city in the long run because you can't grow forever," said Kent Hamlin, a 38-year-old Fresno County prosecutor making his first run at public office.

"Mr. Bonadelle and others like him want to pave over Clovis the same way they paved over Fresno. We've got to draw a line in the dirt and take these guys on."

The 76-year-old Bonadelle, a multimillionaire who once stared down the Mafia in a land deal gone bad, said there is only one economic measure that counts. No tract house built by him or his son and two sons-in-law has ever lost a buyer money--and that takes in 30,000 houses.

"When a young couple makes more money off the house than I did and I worked at it seven days a week, 15 hours a day and about all they did was mow the lawn, that says something."

He said his days of making or breaking local candidates are over. But a few weeks ago, he admitted, he summoned a dozen or so developers to his office and over lunch raised $35,000 to defeat anti-builder candidates in Clovis and adjacent Fresno.

With four weeks to go and no limits on campaign contributions here, things could get wild.

"It's going to get vicious," said Clovis City Councilwoman Pat Wynne, who is on the builders' hit list. "There's a land grab going on here and millions and millions of dollars are at stake. And we're the ones standing in the way."

Controlling growth might seem old-hat in Napa or Marin, but it is downright novel in the San Joaquin Valley, where it is said elected officials begin amending general plans before the ink is dry.

The go-go attitude has made this region one of the fastest growing in the country. But too often, critics say, the growth has consisted of $100,000 houses serviced by strip malls. Unemployment still hovers at 15% and what jobs have come are mostly of the Wal-Mart and Kmart variety.

"Since Proposition 13, housing is not the economic boon it used to be," said David Strong, an Oakland-based economist who has studied the state's farming communities. "I'd caution a city before it plants houses over farmland."

Studies show that farmland demands 30 cents in community services for every dollar it generates in local tax revenue. By comparison, a subdivision demands $1.27 in services for every $1 it generates, according to numerous Fresno city studies.

"The math is simple," said Elizabeth Scott-Graham of American Farmland Trust, a national advocacy group. "Cows don't go to school and fruit trees don't go to the bathroom."

Up and down this farm belt there are signs that growth has not generated enough tax base or developer fees to pay for itself.

In Kern County, general fund money is being spent on servicing new subdivisions at the expense of major road construction. Instead of slowing down growth or substantially raising developer fees, elected officials have told citizens to get used to a "reduced quality of life."

In Fresno, a decade of growth has diluted police presence to the point that the city has about one officer for every 1,000 residents, the third-worst ratio in the country.

Here in Clovis, population 60,000, the Old West-style downtown is thriving and the per capita sales tax revenue is one of the highest in the state. But the city recently installed a new sewer line to service growth that requires 750 housing starts a year to cover its debt service.

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