BY ANGELINA MARTIN
Hilmar community members and a local developer are waiting anxiously for an upcoming Merced County Board of Supervisors decision that will determine whether or not a proposed apartment complex project in the town will move forward.
Over 30 residents of the small town showed up to a Merced County Planning Commission meeting on Oct. 10, speaking out against plans by Turlock-based homebuilder JKB Living to construct a 103-unit apartment complex in the heart of town. The commission heard community concerns with the impact such a complex would have on Hilmar, ultimately voting 4-1 to recommend denying the project.
“Hilmar residents came out in force,” said John Anderson of J.B. Land Use Planning, who has worked with JKB Living President James Brenda on several properties in Ripon, Modesto, Lathrop and now Hilmar. “That was kind of a big deal having that many people in the audience…I’m glad they’re engaged and I’m glad they’re a part of the process.”
In addition to those in attendance at the meeting, close to 1,000 Hilmar residents also signed a petition imploring both the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors to shoot down the Poquito Luxury Apartments, which are advertised by the JKB Living website as a project that will “uniquely blend luxury living” with the recently-constructed Lola Bistro and Event Center, which sits nearby. The vacant lot behind the restaurant used to be a small golf course, but sat abandoned for years before Brenda purchased the property nearly 15 years ago.
JKB Living originally filed an application with the Board of Supervisors in 2015 to construct a senior living complex on the lot, as the Hilmar Community Plan designated the property as such. After taking into account the lack of immediate medical services in Hilmar, JKB Living decided a senior living complex would not be marketable in the town and applied to modify the town’s general plan to build an apartment complex.
The project, located on the north side of W. First Street, 600 feet east of Lander Avenue, is currently designated as Quasi-Public and Mixed Use, but JKB is proposing to change the designation to Medium Density Residential and the zoning designation to Planned Development.
Hilmar residents are saying “no, thank you,” to the proposal, however.
“We don’t want to change (the plan) in that spot. We specifically designated it that way because it’s in the center of Hilmar and we want it for our own community,” Hilmar resident Robert Mitchell told the Planning Commission on Oct. 10. “A gated community in there doesn’t add anything to us.”
Community members have specific concerns with the traffic that a new apartment complex would bring to Hilmar, as well as the impact it would have on the town’s schools, which they say already have too many students as it is. In addition, the Hilmar County Water District says there isn’t enough water in town to support the apartment complex or any other new developments.
Written comments — as well as comments at the public Planning Commission meeting — reflected worries related to traffic delays and congestion, particularly at intersections with Lander Avenue. A traffic impact analysis for the project site states that the apartments would bring an increase in traffic at the nearby intersections of First Street and Ellington Avenue by 24.1 percent and 16.8 percent, respectively.
Residents are looking to alleviate the town’s traffic on Lander Avenue, they said, not add to it. But the impact analysis found that all intersections and roadway segments analyzed are currently operating within acceptable Merced County and Caltrans level of service thresholds. Additionally, JKB Living would pay a total of $614,292 in Merced County Road Impact Fees.
“I live right here in Hilmar, and I see Lander and First Street several times a day. Our traffic, our infrastructure, it’s just horrible,” Hilmar resident Carl Lasiter told the Planning Commission. “You can take these studies and you can make them say anything you want them to say…but those of us that live with this every day do not need any more traffic.”
Concerns with school capacity were discussed at the Planning Commission meeting as well, and the apartment complex would generate approximately 19 new elementary school students, four middle school students and eight high school students. In accordance with state law, JKB Living would pay Hilmar Unified School District $370,851 in school impact fees.
While Hilmar does not currently have the water infrastructure needed to bring an apartment complex to town, Anderson believes it is a short-term issue that can be resolved before the proposal goes before the Board of Supervisors in early February. The town has two operating wells, and would need to add a third in order for more development to occur.
Supervisor Lloyd Parreira, who represents Hilmar on the Board, said he imagines the water issue can be resolved, but as long as the community is opposed to the apartment complex JKB Living has an uphill climb.
“The opponents of this project have done their homework, and really it’s evident that the community doesn’t necessarily want it,” Parreira said. “As Supervisor for Hilmar, my responsibility is to help Hilmar do what Hilmar wants.”
“Lloyd told us from the beginning that we would need to get the community behind the apartment project, and we haven’t been able to do that,” Anderson said. “Is it needed? Yeah. Is it the right site? By many means it’s the right site. Does Hilmar want apartments? Obviously, they don’t.”
Parreira is only in his second year as Supervisor and said that he hasn’t yet made a decision on a project that the Planning Commission has recommended denying, but said their recommendation “usually plays a pretty big role.”
Anderson said that despite benefits to the project explained by JKB Living, like more visitors to local businesses and expanded living options in town, as well as studies that have negated many of the community’s concerns, the bottom line is that Hilmar residents simply don’t want an apartment complex in town.
“It’s not that they don’t want growth or that they don’t want the investment in their community — it’s that they don’t want apartments,” he said. “There’s a perception that if you allow apartments in, you’re allowing undesirables — whoever that may be — and they’re passionate about it.”
The County will be seeking additional information on Hilmar’s water situation before the proposal moves on to the Board of Supervisors at their Feb. 5 meeting, Anderson added. Until then, JKB Living and the Hilmar community wait in limbo.
“If the Board says no, what will we do? I don’t know,” Anderson said.