Farmers object to PG&E training plan near Winters

Published: Wednesday, Jul. 17, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Wednesday, Jul. 17, 2013 - 5:45 pm

Winters, the small Yolo County city with deep agrarian roots, is on the verge of landing the biggest investment in its 138-year history.

The slow-growing town known for its broad swaths of walnut orchards may soon haul in what city officials are saying would be its largest cash crop yet – a $75 million gas safety training facility for the Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

But some farmers are raising concerns that the project, which would be built on farmland just outside the city, would compromise Winters' agricultural heritage that stretches back more than a century.

The controversy is nothing new to the city of Winters, which has established itself as a hub of the sustainability-focused farm-to-fork movement. In 2010, residents of the environmentally conscious town showed up in droves to discuss the development of a Burger King franchise at a planning commission meeting.

This time, they're concerned that the new facility will set a standard for rezoning parcels of agricultural land in the Winters area. If PG&E is permitted to develop its agricultural-zoned property, other owners could follow suit, and industrial projects could gradually consume Winters' farmland, said Susan Hamilton, who owns 120 acres of walnut trees along the western border of PG&E's land.

"It's similar to the passenger pigeon," Hamilton said. "People never thought they could kill off the passenger pigeon, and now it's gone."

PG&E intends to construct the 35-acre training center on a 300-acre parcel of land northwest of Winters that it has owned since 1960. A storage facility capable of holding 7 billion cubic feet of natural gas currently sits on the land.

The utility has described the training center as a hands-on learning academy with indoor and outdoor facilities that would accommodate between 200 and 300 students at full capacity. Visitors who study at the center would stay off-site and would likely need lodging in one of the nearby towns, including Winters.

At the academy, PG&E would train employees and first-responders in carbon monoxide and leak investigation along with a variety of skills relating to engineering, construction and maintenance, according to rate case documents published in November 2012.

Because the land is in an unincorporated area of Yolo County just outside Winters, county officials have ultimate authority to approve or deny the project.

The county supervisor who represents Winters, Don Saylor, said he thinks PG&E's proposed use of the land is allowable under agricultural zoning. But he added that the county will review the project with an eye toward how PG&E's project fits with the agrarian legacy of the area.

He is optimistic about the potential economic benefits.

"I think it's a really exciting opportunity to pursue, and we just want to proceed with eyes open on all aspects of the consideration," he said.

Depending on the route that PG&E takes to gain the county's approval, the decision will either go through the Yolo County Board of Supervisors or the county's planning commission, said county spokeswoman Beth Gabor.

Winters officials say the training center, which PG&E bills as a state-of-the-art, eco-friendly building, would be a major coup for the city of 6,500.

Winters has undertaken many projects over the last several years to revitalize its downtown. In 2006, the city called for 10 improvement projects that included an additional parking lot, a downtown entrance sign and a streetscape overhaul. Also in the works is an 83-room hotel that would accommodate Winters' growing tourist industry.

PG&E trainees would dine at the community's downtown restaurants, sample wine at its tasting rooms and sleep at the proposed hotel, which might be open as early as fall 2014, said John Donlevy, city manager of Winters.

"When one of the major companies in Northern California is considering coming to your city, bringing good jobs and doing something that's going to help the vibrancy of Winters, would we think about considering it?" Donlevy asked. "Absolutely we would."

Hamilton objects to the project partially because people from across the state would commute to the training center. Between 60 and 100 cars would drive to the center daily, which she believes would destroy the tranquillity of the land.

She also doubts the city's claims that the facility would be a boon for Winters hiring, suggesting that PG&E would likely bring many of its existing employees to fill new positions. She also disagrees with the city government's vision for developing Winters into an upscale tourist destination because she believes it clashes with the town's agricultural legacy.

"I feel like the current city plan is not seeing us as an agricultural town, but a future boutique town," Hamilton said. "I don't want it to lose its charm."

Also in contention is the agricultural viability of the land the facility would be built on. The city initially was concerned that the land contained nutrient-rich soil better suited for agriculture. But councilman Wade Cowan said the city eventually concluded the soil was not well-suited to growing crops.

"It's a perfect spot because that soil is junk," Cowan said. "You can't grow something on there, basically."

But Hamilton says the soil is capable of nourishing crops that grow better with a slower supply of nutrients, such as plums grown for prunes, olives and grapes.

"Our neighbor has acres and acres of prunes on the same soil," she said.

Dan Martinez, who owns a 250-acre stretch of plums, grapes and walnuts directly south of PG&E's land, acknowledged that the training facility may affect his way of life. But he said it was ultimately a good step for the city.

Martinez said he bought his property a little over 10 years ago knowing that his neighbors to the north might someday develop the land.

"I don't want to be one of those people who say, 'It's a great idea, but don't put it here,' " Martinez said.

To allay the concerns of Hamilton and her neighbors, the city is discussing ways to prevent the new facility from bothering area farmers, which could include planting a grove of trees around it to dampen noise and hide it from view, said Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, the mayor of Winters.

PG&E may also choose to build the training facility at a distance from adjacent properties to keep the noise from annoying neighbors, she said.

"It's over 300-plus acres," Aguiar-Curry said. "The campus site is maybe 35. They're trying to make it so it doesn't impede on anybody."

Call The Bee's Benjamin Mullin, (916) 321-1034.

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