Reedley takes 1st step in banning unregulated labs

Reedley City Council passes an urgency ordinance to restrict unregulated private research, development labs that work with hazardous biological substances to prevent future illegal lab operations

Reedley City Council members addressing concerns from the public regarding the Bio Lab discovered in the city at its Aug. 8 meeting. (Kenny Goodman)
Serena Bettis
Published September 14, 2023  • 
11:00 am

REEDLEY – The city is taking steps to ensure that unregulated research and development labs can never operate in Reedley again after the discovery of a hazardous biomedical lab brought up numerous safety concerns for residents.

Reedley City Council unanimously approved an urgency ordinance at its meeting on Sept. 12 that places a temporary moratorium on all private laboratories or warehouses that handle biological agents with a Biosafety Lab (BSL) Level higher than 1, and do not receive oversight from the federal or state government. City Manager Nicole Zieba said this is a preventative measure until the city can put an official ordinance into its zoning code update later this year.

“We have the perfect opportunity to really specify under ‘zoning,’ if laboratories were to come through our door, where they could locate and under what circumstances they could locate,” Zieba said. “Is this likely to happen? No, but given what this community has gone through with 850 I St., we want to be abundantly cautious and make sure that we have regulations in place.”

The discovery of an illegal lab located at 850 I St. in Reedley brought to light the fact that privately run laboratories – specifically, labs that don’t receive any public funding – can obtain infectious diseases and conduct research without being subject to regulations under the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA); a standard of federal regulations managed by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). 

Zieba has said this incident allowed Reedley to open the door on a national regulatory issue. She announced Sept. 13 that she received a congressional subpoena from the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party and the House Committee on Energy and Commerce to provide information related to the lab discovery.

“In the city of Reedley, as is the case in most cities — certainly the ones in Fresno County but also around the state and around the nation — our zoning code is silent on private research and development laboratories,” Zieba said. “If a lab were to come into the city right now, other than being somewhere in the industrial zone, there isn’t a lot of regulation on where they could go.”

WHAT THE ORDINANCE DOES

Through the urgency ordinance, the city is only blocking research and development labs with BSL Levels 2 through 4 that are not regulated by CLIA, Zieba said. 

As defined by the CDC, BSL Levels 2 through 4 involve infectious diseases that become more dangerous to humans as the level increases. For example, Influenza is a Level 2 substance because it is infectious and varies in its severity to humans, while the Ebola virus is a Level 4 substance because it is a high-risk agent and is a life-threatening disease. 

BSL Level 1 substances are known to not be hazardous to human health and therefore would not be impacted by the ordinance. Zieba said that this allows for agricultural labs that conduct genetic testing on produce, for example, to continue operating within the city. 

“This is no way going to impact current businesses within the city of Reedley,” Zieba said. 

According to a staff report on the ordinance, the city does not currently have “regulations specific to biological storage and/or research activities that include Biosafety Levels,” and there is nothing in the zoning code that governs the location of those uses in relation to “sensitive uses,” like being close to schools, parks and residential neighborhoods. 

The urgency ordinance prohibits city staff from issuing any new business licenses or accepting any site plan, conditional use permit or administrative review applications that involve these laboratories. It also prohibits relocating an existing, fully permitted and licensed facility, to a site that is within one mile of a sensitive use site.

An urgency ordinance lasts for 45 days, at which time the city council must revisit the ordinance and renew it. Zieba said the renewal then lasts for a year, but city staff anticipate that a second renewal will be unnecessary because the zoning code update — which will have lab restrictions in place — will be brought to council well before then.

Zieba said the goal with the ordinance is to make sure the city can appropriately address unregulated laboratories with BSL Levels 2 through 4 in the zoning code update.

“Tonight I think we have an opportunity to make sure that we have one more level of safety for our community, and if approved we will bring this back in 45 days as well,” Zieba said. “This community has been through a lot, and I think we need to do what we can to keep it safe.”

Serena Bettis
General Assignment Reporter