This story was produced by Fresnoland, a nonprofit news organization that partners with The Fresno Bee.
The Fresno City Planning Commission dealt the Southwest Fresno Specific plan a double blow on Wednesday, voting 5-0 to advance Mayor Jerry Dyer’s proposal to add an industrial overlay district in 92.5 acres of disputed land.
Hours later, the body voted 3-2 to approve and send to the City Council the long-standing application by developers and landowners to rezone the same 92.5-acre, 15-parcel site in southwest Fresno from neighborhood mixed use to light industrial use.
Commissioners Haley M Wagner, Monica Diaz and Brad Hardie voted in favor of the latter while Peter Vang and Robert Fuentes voted against. Commissioner Kathy Bray had recused herself from the votes due to an unspecified conflict, and Commissioner D.J. Criner was not present at the meeting.
“My clients are pleased that the Planning Commission voted to recommend the reinstatement of light industrial zoning to allow my clients to continue their existing operations,” John Kinsey, attorney for the applicants stated in an email Thursday morning. “This decision helps preserve thousands of jobs in Southwest Fresno, keeps supply chains running, and provides the landowners the ability to receive the financing needed to upgrade to electric trucks and green infrastructure.”
The meeting lasted more than three hours and was fraught with emotions. Several community members spoke of the many months of laboring to create the SWFSP – a plan they thought would protect their community – and about their hopelessness about losing everything they had fought for.
“What the rezone application asks us to do is to refuse to acknowledge the health impacts, to ignore or refuse to acknowledge the California legislation that has identified our community as one of those that is most impacted by poor air quality, and to act as if we are not concerned, nor do we have any interest in solving the problem,” Venise Curry, a psychiatrist, environmental activist and southwest Fresno resident, told the commission.
“So it is not by accident that our community raised its voice and said no more. And so the idea of rezoning, or going back to zoning that would allow further industrial sites to be planted in west Fresno, is contraindicated.”
A majority of the commissioners who voted felt otherwise.
Wagner, who made the motion to approve the application, said that while she appreciates the difficulty for both sides, “our population here continues to grow, and as our population grows, we need the services to support it.”
Before making a motion to reject the application, which failed 3-2, Vang said, “It’s difficult; it’s a difficult situation.”
Eric Payne, southwest Fresno resident and executive director of the Central Valley Urban Institute, said after the vote, “I’m disappointed in the mayor’s planning commission. They ignored all the red flags presented by the public this evening.”
Is the commission’s independence compromised?
The “commissioners are under-skilled, under-educated, and have mismanaged these applications from the start,” said Miguel Arias, District 3 representative on the Fresno City Council. He called Wednesday’s decisions significantly flawed, and questioned the independence and integrity of what he described as the “mayor’s commission.”
“The Planning Commission has been unable to be a fully participating body,” Arias said. “I believe the residents of southwest Fresno deserve a full planning commission who don’t have conflicts of interest to consider such an important matter.” Arias said that the planning commission candidates presented by the mayor often have “significant conflicts of interest” which often resulted in a lack of quorum during meetings.
‘A cleaner and greener neighborhood overlay district’?
Wednesday’s meeting will be remembered as a night of contrasts, even though the debates focused on the same piece of land – the 92.5-acre, 15-parcel site on Elm Avenue. The first wrangling dealt with the mayor’s industrial overlay plan while the other half handled the landowners’ application for rezone.
Discussions on the mayor’s text amendment to add the “cleaner and greener neighborhood overlay district” exposed a deep fracturing of the old southwest Fresno coalition, which Ivanka Saunders, policy analyst with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, said “complicates things.”
Arias said the community discord is simple. “People that helped design the overlay were in support of it – that was a handful of individuals, and those who were not part of the process, were opposed to it.”
The main actors on both sides (except Pastor B.T. Lewis of Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church in southwest Fresno) had been part of the steering committee that created the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan and had, until Wednesday, spoken in unison throughout the 18 months that this matter has been before the commission.
Lewis, now a community liaison in the mayor’s office, Debbie Darden and Robert Mitchell, co-chairs of the Golden Westside Planning Committee, and Mary Curry, longtime southwest Fresno resident and leader, sided with the mayor, urging the commission to advance the overlay plan.
This group, which Saunders called the “mayor’s inner circle of advisory,” was commended in the city’s presentation for their role in creating the plan that was presented to the planning commission.
Additionally, speeches by both Lewis and Mitchell at the meeting show they’ve fully embraced the city’s position that allowing the cleaner and greener neighborhood overlay district would “clarify and codify certain legal nonconforming uses” as well as protect public health and promote a greater range of uses such as green businesses, utilizing the best available technology that serves the interests of public health.
“The overlay is a way to put some restrictions in place,” Lewis said, “so that the property owners can continue to move forward.”
Mitchell argued that the “initiative and the text overlay clarify what can be there and can’t be there and has specific prohibitions included in it to prevent any additional pollution.”
He explained that a simple rezoning would not protect the community from additional pollution by any business that wishes to be on that 92-acre spot. “So this is a much more stringent, much stronger attempt to support the very idea, principles and intent of the specific plan.”
The other side – Saunders; Payne; Sylvesta Hall, a local developer who owns property in southwest Fresno; Michaelyn Lewis, a southwest Fresno resident; June Stanfield, whose home on Ivy Avenue is one block from Mid Valley Recycling; Kimberly McCoy, the project director of Fresno Building Healthy Communities; and tens of others from the southwest and other parts of the city – waged a vigorous defense, insisting that allowing any change in designation of the controversial lands would undermine the intent of the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan and allow more polluting industries in their neighborhood.
“That small group of less than five or six people does not represent the whole west side,” Saunders said in an interview with Fresnoland on Thursday.
Hall hinted at a betrayal from the “brothers that can’t even discuss with other brothers and got behind other brotherhood’s back when they started working with the mayor.”
Saunders also said, “They (supporters of the overlay plan) never did any community engagement. They never did a true, robust receiving of input from community meetings. It is the exact same play that this city has been known for – having closed-door conversations.”
Mitchell pushed back, maintaining that the group’s work was never for personal gain. “Those of us who worked on this, it’s all of our own volition,” he said. “We gave up our time, countless hours in the months after we became aware of what could be lost.”
He promised the group’s goal is “to benefit our community, to make our community safer, to provide an opportunity for us as residents and for our future generations to have a much healthier existence, a better life within our community, by applying the principles of the specific plan in the overlay text amendment.”
Stanfield, whose residence is next to the disputed area, urged the commission to “not allow this Pandora’s box to be opened because I don’t see any good coming from it.”
After the commission voted for the overlay and shifted its discussion to the application by the developers to rezone the 92.5 acres, the differences disappeared and the community banded once again.
City’s presentation raised questions
Robert Holt of the city’s planning department questioned the feasibility of advancing the application because of the limitations of SB 330 which prohibits local jurisdictions from enacting new laws that would have the effect of “reducing the new housing within their borders.”
He explained that the developers should have submitted a separate application for a plan amendment to provide for the residential units that would be lost if the 92.5 acres is rezoned from neighborhood mixed use to light industrial use.
“The subject property is located within the neighborhood mixed use plan land use designation which currently allows for the density of 16 dwelling units per acre and within 92.53 acres, there would be a net loss of 1,481 dwelling units,” Holt said, and the applicants have not taken any steps to “offset the loss of residential capacity.”
The developers, led by attorney Kinsey, presented an elaborate case, featuring a number of speakers – landowners, landlords, environmentalists, zoning experts – slideshows and a video.
“These are clean properties; they’re well maintained; they’re not dirty,” Kinsey said about the tracts of land. “And they’re adjacent to State Route 41, and adjacent to those heavy industrial uses on the other side of 41, they provide a buffer between the heavy industrial uses which these are not and the residential and commercial uses to the west.”
Kinsey said that at the time the properties were developed, the zoning and land use designation of the area was Light Industrial and that most of the landowners were unaware of the rezone that happened with the Southwest Specific plan in 2017.
He added that mandatory state regulations will “reduce emissions from land uses that are currently existing at the site and will have a beneficial environmental impact.”
What’s at stake?
The tracts are located in southwest Fresno – one of the most polluted and economically disadvantaged census tracts in California, according to CalEnviroScreen.
In a Feb. 3 letter opposing both the overlay plan and rezoning, Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability cites a CalEnviroScreen report that shows that southwest Fresno ranks in the top 1% of city census tracts of the most polluted, heavily burdened areas.
In 2013, the California Environmental Protection Agency declared that residents of west Fresno live with higher health risks than anyone in California. And, life expectancy is more than 12 years lower in this part of southwest Fresno, compared to north Fresno and Clovis neighborhoods, according to a 2020 analysis from the National Center for Health Statistics.
“Yet, this city’s only priority continues to focus on the economic goals by way of industrial growth rather than a comprehensive approach balancing quality jobs with upward mobility and creating healthy, complete communities,” the letter states. “Jobs without living wages and benefits, upwards mobility, community benefits agreements, and without proven mitigation measures will only continue to increase the equity gaps in communities of color.”
That southwest Fresno carries the burden of poor health from polluting industries is a result of an ugly history of persistent racial inequality perpetrated by racist policies, including redlining, forced segregation and construction of highways 99 and 41.
What comes next?
The Planning Commission’s decision was “an emotional defeat for the community,” Arias said, but “a superficial win for the applicants” because it’s not officially approved. “So everyone lost.”
He added that the application is “gonna have to come to the City Council for final approval, and the community is going to oppose it. It has no chance of getting through the council.”
Saunders said that Leadership Counsel is reviewing how to engage the community and work with state entities to figure the way forward. She added that rezoning the area violates existing laws and would most likely be challenged in court.
“This community is selected as one of the most overburdened areas,” for which the city receives funding for AB 617 from the state strategic growth council for measures to reduce emissions, Saunders said. “You want to receive that money, but continue the same racially motivated practices of the past?”