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Armstrong Road landowners have own greenbelt plan

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Posted: Monday, January 31, 2005 10:00 pm

Greenbelt landowners have met several times in the past few months to discuss a plan they believe would fairly compensate them for preserving a community separator between Lodi and Stockton.

Members who live on Armstrong Road, most of whom are farmers or dairy owners, want to present their plan as a counter-proposal to one designed by the city's Greenbelt Task Force late last year. That plan allows Armstrong Road landowners to develop a small percentage of the 2,000-acre strip into housing, leaving the remainder preserved in agriculture.

The task force's meeting tonight was canceled to give the landowners time to work on their plan.

Details of the counter-proposal are sketchy, since the plan is still at the idea stage. There's no mystery where the main conflict between the two sides lies, however.

Cities typically can't compete with development dollars when it comes to purchasing real estate, and many growers aren't too keen on giving up what could eventually be a lucrative investment.

"Our main issue has always been being compensated for the value of (the land)," said Kurt Kautz, whose family owns about 400 acres in the mile-wide strip running along Armstrong Road between Interstate 5 and Highway 99.

"I don't have a problem with it remaining a greenbelt. It would be good for Lodi," Kautz added.

He is one of a number of winegrape growers who have met in the past few months to discuss a new plan. Others include Bruce and Jerry Fry of Mohr-Fry Ranches and Steve Borra of Borra Winery. Bruce Fry is also a member of the task force.

Joe Petersen, program director for the San Joaquin County Farm Bureau, has worked with the growers on drafting a counter-proposal. The current plan, which calls for growers to sell the development rights to most of their land, doesn't compensate the owners for what the land could be worth in 20 years, he said.

"Farmers are gamblers," Petersen said. "If you're only going to offer 10 cents on the dollar for what they believe it will be worth 15 to 20 years from now, I would guess most farmers would gamble that it would be worth a lot more. You have to be realistic about what the market is."

Parcels of land closer to Lodi and Stockton's current borders have sold for as much as $200,000 to $300,000 an acre, Kautz said. Properties along Armstrong Road do not command that type of pricetag, but their speculative value is likely to grow as the two cities move closer together.

"Uncontrolled, it will all be built on eventually," Kautz said. "It would all probably be worth $200,000 to $300,000 an acre (in the future)."

The task force has not met since December, when the landowners told the board they wanted to work on their own plan. Community Development Director Konradt Bartlam has canceled four meetings since then, including the one scheduled for tonight, to give the landowners time to draft a proposal.

"I just don't see how it would be more productive for us to meet while they're (discussing a counterproposal)," Bartlam said on Monday. "It would probably be counterproductive. It very well may send a signal to the property owners that we don't want to work with them."

The task force unveiled the plan in November. For every 10 acres owned inside the proposed greenbelt area, the landowner receives a "development credit" to build homes a 10,000-square-foot lot.

The landowner can either use their credit for development or sell the credit to another landowner, who could in turn develop more homes on a separate parcel. At full buildout, it leaves the potential for 321 units on 74 acres -- about 2 percent of the 3,942-acre strip.

Since it began meeting in early 2003, the task force has sometimes had a difficult time communicating with the greenbelt landowners. Chairwoman Susan Hitchcock said on Monday that she's glad to see this group involved in the issue and hopes they can work together on a solution.

"We want to give them the freedom to be able to explore and talk about those ideas," Hitchcock said. "We're sitting here ready. We hope it will be sooner than later that they're ready to present something."

Jerry Fry said on Monday that he couldn't get into specifics of what has been discussed so far among the landowners. He did acknowledge that the land's value is one of the biggest issues. And though the growers have a long history in Lodi, many feel they have to protect their own interests as well as those of the community.

"They love the area too," Fry said. "But they also have equity in the property. There's no easy solution to it."

Contact Business Editor Greg Kane at gregk@lodinews.com.

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