A Winters tale: One giant leap?

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With apologies to Neil Armstrong, the Winters City Council took one small step last week.  I am hoping it might also be one giant leap for the future of our town. It happened near the end of their Tuesday meeting, with very little fanfare, and no one in the audience cheering them on. Nonetheless, they did the right thing. Reacting to a community which feels left out of the planning process, the five Council members unanimously approved a measure which restricts–at least in the early stages–the freedom of any developer wishing to annex any land outside the city limits. Now, such developers must go through the Council first. And that means everything will be out in the open.     Soon, we may finally learn whether most in Winters oppose the destruction of pristine farmland in favor of tract homes.  Or whether, as the city staff likes to suggest, they are a “vocal minority,” or “a bunch of tire kickers.” Here’s how it works:  A developer who wishes to begin the application process must first ask permission of the City Council.  The Council can give the go ahead, or say, “No.” If rejected, the developer may apply anyway, pay the costs and take his chances.  That’s his right. But now, having had to make his case in public, there will be no doubt as to his desires.  No more rumors. No more simply entrusting this first critical step to the City Manager, taking his word that everything will turn out OK. Let me refresh your memory. It was only in April that a Winters Express reporter, Matthew Keys, dug up and published correspondence between City Manager John Donlevy and the agent for a developer who wishes to pave over 800 acres of farmland both in and out of the city. This would nearly double the physical size of Winters, and with plans for up to 7500 new residents, double our population. Reading the correspondence between the City Manager and the developer’s agent was eye opening. It gave the developer guidelines to begin the process of creating his massive subdivision. All perfectly legal, and no deal was struck.  It was the tone that was disturbing. The City Manager was not only receptive to the idea, but encouraging. What was also troubling was that most of this was taking place out of public view.  Indeed, most in Winters would never have known about these discussions had not the Express been brave enough to publish the letters.  May we continue to be so brave. Speaking of courage, I’ve always believed the city would be better served if it knew where its Council members stood on this existential issue. At the meeting last week, our genial Mayor Bill Biasi addressed this point, saying he thinks it inappropriate to take a position without having specific plans before him. I respectfully disagree.  The stakes here are simply too high to wait for application forms, City Attorney opinions, or another exhaustive (and exhausting) Heidi Tschudin PowerPoint presentation. Tell us, Bill (and Pierre, Jesse, Harold, and Wade), just how you feel about expanding Winters to the point where it may no longer look like Winters. Do you believe this is inevitable?  Do you think, as does our City Manager, that you can manage it.  And keep Winters Winters?  Just asking. In the meantime, the same developer who wishes to annex all of that land outside the city’s border, already owns a fair sized chunk within the city limits, 182 acres worth . If he keeps within those boundaries, he’ll not need Council approval to apply.  And City Manager Donlevy has said privately he expects an application soon.   And so, for that reason, it’s wise for the public to stay on top of this, for that process might remain behind the scenes (unless Matthew Keys has bugged City Hall). Too often in the past, Councils have relied almost solely on the judgement of the City Manager to help them shape policy.  And its worked. He’s been right on so many things, and has helped guide Winters to its remarkable state today. But this potential expansion is extraordinary.  And extraordinary times call for extraordinary oversight. I know that attending City Council sessions is not the most entertaining way to spend Tuesday evenings. At times, they can be mind-numbingly boring. (Bottom-numbing, too, if you sit for the full two hours.) But it’s worth keeping a watchful eye on our representatives in these critical months ahead. Remember, real estate developers don’t work on behalf of a community.  They work for themselves. And they are notorious for taking advantage of naive city officials.  ]]>

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