Fresno County’s general plan gets green light

Board of Supervisors unanimously approve changes to Fresno County general plan, community members express doubts the plan will meet expectations

The Fresno County Board of Supervisors at one of their biweekly convenings.
The Fresno County Board of Supervisors at one of their biweekly convenings.
Darren Fraser
Published February 27, 2024  • 
12:00 pm

FRESNO COUNTY – With a 5-0 vote, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors (Board) approved an update to the County’s General Plan (Plan), the first such update in 24 years.

Despite assurances from the preparers of the Plan that it will address climate change, check urban sprawl, safeguard the environment, protect Kings River and assist disadvantaged communities, members of the community and one city official expressed concerns on if the Plan will accomplish any of the goals it sets forth.

The Plan is 405 pages. Together with the ancillary documents, the total document package was so large Supervisor Steve Brandau mentioned the Fresno County Public Works and Planning department had to deliver it to the supervisors on flash drives.

Bernard Jimenez, assistant director of public works and planning, chaired the department’s presentation to the Board. Jimenez acknowledged that the Plan’s reach – it is effective through 2042 – may exceed its grasp.

“The approval by the Board sets in place policies and programs that will guide development of the unincorporated areas of Fresno County for the next 18 to 20 years,” Jimenez said at the outset of the discussion.

Later, Jimenez noted that despite the considerable efforts that went into the update – County staff have been working on it since 2012 – there is no crystal ball available to foresee environmental and other impacts that may arise in subsequent years.

“There are environmental impacts we simply cannot mitigate, but this will not be a stagnant document that sits on the shelf,” he said. “We will regularly come back to the Board and give annual reports. We know that people will be looking over our shoulder.”

He added that trying to balance the state’s policy mandates on growth and development with the local desires of conservation do not always align.

“On the one hand, we’re being asked for more housing,” Jimenez said. “On the other hand, we’re being told to conserve more groundwater. To preserve air quality and to reduce the number of miles traveled (on roads).”

WHAT’S IN IT

After his introduction, Jimenez handed off the presentation to Chris Motta, who is the general manager of the County’s division services.

Motta said the Plan follows the original plan from the year 2000 by retaining 12 original themes and adding a 13th. The original 12 themes included economic development, agricultural land protection, growth accommodation, urban-centered growth, efficient and functional land use patterns, service efficiency, recreation development, resource protection, health and safety protection, health and well-being, enhanced quality of life and affordable housing.

Environment justice is the newly-added 13th theme. Motta said this theme addresses the requirements of Senate Bill (SB) 1000 and Assembly Bill (AB) 1528, which pertain to disadvantaged communities. Motta said the environmental justice element, through policies and programs, addresses multiple topics, including land use and environment, access to health and healthy foods and it promotes physical activity.

The Plan provides for an updated General Plan Safety Element, which was approved by the State Board of Forestry, that “addresses climate hazards including wildfires, fire vulnerability and emergency evacuation.”

William Kettler, Division Manager, Development Services and Capital Projects, taking the baton from Motta, addressed the Zoning Ordinance Update that was included in the Plan update presentation.

There are five key additions to the Zoning Ordinance Update. Kettler said the Objective Design Standards for Multi-family Development streamlines and minimizes the process involved for multi-family housing developments. Kettler said the Temporary Uses addition addresses permits for temporary events, like flea markets, for example – something the County lacked until now.

TWO PLANS ON THE DRAWING BOARD

Most of the discussion, which lasted for nearly two hours, focused on two study areas involving projects that remain on the drawing board.

One study involves an industrial park – a business and industrial campus – in southeast Fresno. Brandau asked Jimenez about the industrial park. He answered that despite a $1 million study by the Economic Development Commission, the park remains in the study phase. Brandau asked what steps must be taken if the County wanted to move forward with the project.

“The General Plan must be amended because the area under consideration is designated for agriculture,” said Jimenez. “It would have to be rezoned and it would require another EIR (environmental impact report).”

The second study area, the one that generated the most discussion, concerned a proposed educational-based Master Planned community north of State Route 180 and Trimmer Springs Road, along the Kings River. The development would include homes and businesses and, possibly, a college.

Ben Ewell addressed the Board on behalf of Harris Farms River Ranch – the backer of the Kings River project – and sought to clear up a few misconceptions regarding the project.

“There is no project at this time,” said Ewell. He added that if and when the project moves forward, it would involve 700 – not 7,000 – acres of the Harris River Ranch.

“It would include nothing on the river side,” said Ewell. He added that none of the property involved would be covered by the Williamson Act, which places limits on non-agricultural use of land.

Brandau, who serves on the San Joaquin River Conservancy, said he wished he could go back in time and undo the developments built along the San Joaquin River.

“We did things wrong,” said Brandau. “We built right up to the boundary of the river, locking away major access from the public.” He said if the Kings River project moves forward, the Board will address past mistakes and not repeat them.

PUBLIC COMMENTS

During the public comments, audience members expressed concerns that the Plan, despite the environment justice element, would not address the needs of disadvantaged communities; other members said there was nothing of substance in the Plan to govern urban sprawl.

Esther Ramirez lives in Cantua Creek. She said small communities, like hers, deserve to be part of the Plan.

“We are a small community that should have all the advantages a town or city has. We have no on-site services for fire and medical,” Ramirez said.

Daniel J. O’Connell, policy research director at the Central Valley Partnership and the land use and agricultural chair at the Sierra Club – and serves on the San Joaquin River Conservancy with Brandau – said he has been trying to educate the public on general plans for 20 years.

“General plans are the economic constitutions of a city or county,” said O’Connell.

O’Connell said general plans have ethical and moral values and the easiest way to ascertain the validity of these values is to answer one question.

“Whose benefit is the plan designed for?,” he said. “This plan, as I look at it, is designed to benefit a handful of sprawl developers and agri-business interests at the expense of the public at large.”

Sue Buckley, president of the Kings River Conservancy, and Kent Kinney, president of the Kings River Land Trust, pressed the Board to update the Kings River Regional Plan, which has not been updated since 1979.

President of the Kings River Conservancy Sue Buckley requests the Fresno County Board of Supervisors to update the Kings River Regional Plan. (Darren Fraser)

“Last year, flooding killed individuals on the river,” said Buckley. “Homeowners at 180 and Piedra Road lost land. Reedley College was flooded. Please revisit the plan. Use the voices of expertise that are available to us and create a substantive and carefully considered plan that factors in what might be unintended consequences.”

Kinney said he owns a farm on the opposite of the river from the study area. Kinney questioned the procedural aspects of the study area.

“Why are we not handling this like we would most other projects that are brought to the planning commission?,” he said. “If there is a conditional use permit necessary, then handle that through the CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) process with an EIR.”

He concluded by reminding the Board of the value of the river to the area.

“Remember, Kings River is a sensitive area. Probably the most environmentally sensitive area in Fresno County. We need mitigation. For 100 acres developed, there must be 100 acres conserved,” Kinney said.

Jennifer Clark is the director of planning and development for the city of Fresno. Clark submitted an eight-page letter on behalf of the city that questioned the legal enforceability of the of the mitigation measures included in the Plan.

“The (Plan’s) EIR does not include sufficient measures related to agricultural resources, air quality and GHG (greenhouse gasses), water resources and transportation, including VMT (vehicle miles traveled),” said Clark.

Following Clark’s comments, County Counsel Daniel C. Cederborg asked outside counsel Sarah Owsowitz, whose practice focuses on CEQA advice and litigation and who participated in the meeting by video, to address Clark’s concerns.

Owsowitz said that based on what she read Clark’s letter, and in the letter prepared by Carstens, Black & Minteer LLP – which was submitted on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Fresno, the Central Valley Partnership, and the Sierra Club, and which stated the Plan’s EIR air quality analysis was inadequate – that the Plan was legally defensible.

Darren Fraser
Reporter