A Winters Tale: One for the history books

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When the history of Winters is told on some New Year’s Day in the distant future, this new year, 2020, will rank among the most pivotal in our town’s history. It will rank alongside 1842, when William Wolfskill accepted a Mexican land grant that brought a wave of settlers here. It will stand beside 1875, of course, when the town was founded. And 1892, when a quake leveled much of it. There was 1972, when two cousins named Mariani decided Winters would be their new home. And eight years later, 1980, when a cattleman named John Pickerel gambled that a steak house would do well here. And 2001, when a young civil servant from the LA area named John Donlevy was hired as City Manager. The events of those years changed everything, and have made Winters the remarkable place it is today.   I believe this new year, 2020, will be just as historic, for this will be the year in which the very character of our town will be decided going forward. This will be the year in which the citizens of Winters, having realized that decisions regarding the city’s expansion are being made for them, instead of by them, will take control. This November, citizens of Winters will be asked at the polls to vote on an amendment to the General Plan, generated by a group of community volunteers.   If passed, it will prohibit the annexation of any land outside the city without a majority vote of the citizens. It will literally draw a line in the sand, or to be precise, right at the city limits. It’s true that no initiative has yet been submitted, but the earnest community members who are working on the project have no intention of backing down.  And to qualify for the ballot, they will need to gather fewer than 400 signatures, which is ten percent of Winters’ registered voters. The reality is: it will happen. So how did it come to this?  Like any historic showdown, it’s a confluence of events and personalities, plus timing. For the past couple of decades, land developers have been eyeing parcels to the north of Winters like pieces of low hanging fruit.  They view these vital agricultural properties as empty space, freeway close, waiting to be purchased, subdivided, built and sold. Indeed, following the recession, big chunks were purchased at bargain prices.  At least one major landowner then began installing residential style infrastructure, just waiting for the time when Winters might be receptive to large scale tract home developments, and come calling. Enter City Manager Donlevy, a true believer in Winters, but also in himself, and the notion that he can effectively manage a much bigger city, while at the same time preserving its inherent charm, and keeping things solvent in tight times. Toss in all the rhetoric from Sacramento, bordering on hysteria, regarding California’s housing shortage, and things began to percolate. Donlevy’s suggestion to a developer that a large scale annexation might be possible if the developer himself did the work and paid the money to prepare a specific plan, seemed to him a plausible, effective, fiscally sound notion.   To others, it was akin to allowing the coyote to design the rabbit hutch. (It reminded me a little of the Iran-Contra deal.) Only when this notion was made public in the Express, did the town’s sentiment shift.    Accustomed to a city so efficiently run, so clean and so inviting, most in town had been content for a very long time to allow the City Manager, and by extension the Council, to decide for themselves how big and how fast Winters will grow.   Council meetings were sometimes so poorly attended you’d have thought the room contained traces of the bubonic plague. But with the prospect of over-development out in the open, perhaps imminent, questions were suddenly being raised.   Why build so many houses, when developer fees are paltry compared to the added costs to the city long term? How will homes which sell for half a million dollars apiece solve the housing crisis?  Why destroy farmland, when it’s the very heart of who we are? And how in the world will doubling our population keep Winters feeling like Winters? At the Planning Workshop last summer, citizens were assured their voices were heard.  But no one in attendance that summer night is satisfied today.   Which led to the meeting two weeks ago of nearly 100 people, a huge crowd by our town’s standards, there to support plans for this year’s voter initiative. Sleepy Winters is now wide awake. And so we welcome in the New Year.  It will be challenging. It will test who we are as a community. It will be one for the history books.]]>

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