By Alex Breitler
STOCKTON — Stockton East Water District wants to run a bulldozer through a family’s walnut orchard in an attempt to appease another neighboring farmer and guard against terrorists who may want to poison Stockton’s drinking water.
For years the district has let farmer Richard Bozzano access his property using a road that travels over water district property and very close to the treatment plant that delivers Stockton’s drinking water.
But Bozzano is planning to sell his property to a developer for new homes, and Stockton East doesn’t want that traffic near its plant. An agreement between Bozzano and the water district concerning the road dictates that the district must provide him with access to his land. And all eyes turn to orchards shared by Janet Leandro and her family. Although the Leandros no longer live on the property 70 years after her Italian grandparents settled here, the family rents out the approximately 30-acre farming operation, using the crop to help pay property taxes and other expenses.
The district wants to run a new road between two parcels that make up the orchard. More than 200 trees would be destroyed over 2.5 acres, the family estimates, and the irrigation system which serves both parcels would be disrupted.
The road would remove at least three rows of walnut trees and reduce the farm’s crop yield by an estimated 2.5 tons, the family says. That’s about $3,600 worth of walnuts, according to last year’s county agriculture report.
“What are we going to have left?” said Janet Leandro’s husband, Angelo. Laying a road between the parcels would also require installing a second pump for water, Janet Leandro said. And it would make it more difficult for farm equipment, which is shared between the two properties, to get around.
The Leandros have declined offers to buy the land. In a letter to the family, the district says it will consider taking the easement through eminent domain. “They say it’s going to protect the water,” Angelo Leandro said. “How is it going to protect the water to have homes over there?”
The concern is over the number of people with access to the district’s facilities, said Jeanne Zolezzi, an attorney who represents Stockton East. It would be unacceptable to have 14 landowners and their families traveling past the plant daily, she said.
Security worries have spiked since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. New bioterrorism legislation required Stockton East to enhance security, and federal recommendations include creating real estate buffers to keep people away from water facilities.
Several years ago Stockton East installed a gate and gave Bozzano a key. Now Bozzano should be provided with a new access road, officials say.
Bozzano could not be reached for comment. Zolezzi said the district is considering eminent domain and the Leandros would be compensated for the fair market value and damages.
Despite the letter the district sent to the Leandros, Kevin Kauffman, general manager of Stockton East, called access across the Leandros’ property just one option. “I’m sure we’ll work with the property owners … and come to a solution that everybody will be happy with,” he said.