Environmental lawsuit rocks Fresno County

Nonprofits file suit against Fresno County and Board of Supervisors, alleging violations of CEQA in recent updates to county’s general plan

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 March 27, 2024  • 
11:00 am

FRESNO COUNTY – The League of Women Voters of Fresno and the Central Valley Partnership (CVP) have filed suit against Fresno County and the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, arguing that updates to the county’s general plan and zoning ordinance, which the Board approved at its Feb. 20 meeting earlier this year, violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

The law firm Carstens, Black and Minter filed the suit on March 21 on behalf of the two nonprofits. In the suit’s Preliminary Statement section, the plaintiffs argue that “In developing and adopting the 2024 General Plan, the Respondents County and its Board have refused to comply with state mandates to improve the execrable air quality in the San Joaquin Valley.”

The suit also alleges the county and Board have failed to improve living conditions in the county’s unincorporated areas, to fight greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and to be transparent with the county’s residents regarding how the plan has been crafted and is being implemented. The League and CVP asked the court to stop the county, the Board and any parties working with them to terminate all projects related to the plan and stop all activities until the plan follows CEQA compliance.

In an email to the Times, a county spokesperson said the county could not comment on pending or active litigation.

The 21-page suit contains a laundry list of grievances, many historical, against the county and Board with respect to how it has administered the general plan since it was adopted in 2000.

In 2013, the state legislature passed Senate Bill (SB) 244, which required each city and county to update its respective land use element to identify disadvantaged unincorporated areas and service deficiencies existing in those areas. SB 244 mandated that communities must identify funding sources and other strategies to remedy the deficiencies. According to the complaint, the county did not comply with SB 244 when it added Appendix B to the general plan.

The suit alleges the county failed to complete major reviews of the plan every five years as mandated by government code.

CEQA

The League of Women Voters of Fresno and CVP argue that the county and Board have routinely flouted CEQA regulations in the 24 years since the plan was adopted.

They argue that CEQA requires all agencies approving projects to identify and detail significant adverse environmental impacts of the project. Agencies must also adopt feasible mitigation measures that could avoid these impacts.

In 2018, the county gave notice of the preparation of an environmental impact report (EIR) for a review and revision of the general plan. The plaintiffs argue the county never released the EIR to the public.

Three years later, the county issued another notice of the preparation of an EIR for the plan. Two years later, in 2023, the county produced a draft EIR for the plan. According to the complaint, the League, CVP and other individuals and organizations were highly critical of the draft. 

Despite these objections, the Board approved the draft at the Feb. 20 meeting, finalizing it and adopting a Statement of Overriding Considerations for those environmental impacts in the plan that were not fully mitigated. Opponents argued that final EIR, as adopted, was not in compliance with CEQA.

The plaintiffs further argue that the general plan EIR fails to address the environmental impacts of GHGs on climate change.

According to the complaint, “The county has not even taken, and does not commit to here, the basic step of developing an inventory of GHG emissions in the unincorporated area to establish a GHG emissions baseline.” 

They also note the only GHG inventory the county had undertaken was in 2012 when it inventoried county government GHG emissions. Again, the League and CVP argue this comes up woefully short of full environmental disclosure in an EIR as required by CEQA.

A STUDY IN FUTILITY

The complaint reserved its most searing criticism for the EIR’s analysis of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the county. Describing the analysis as a “study in futility,” the plaintiffs argued that the analysis lacked crucial information and didn’t offer practical solutions to address the environmental impact caused by the anticipated increase in VMT across the county.

The complaint points out inconsistencies in the EIR data regarding the average VMTs. A technical document linked to the EIR indicates VMT rates per person outside city boundaries were around 31 for residents and about 38 for county employees. However, the EIR itself suggests that the baseline VMT rate considers all areas in the county, resulting in lower rates – approximately 16 for residents and over 25 for county employees.

Aside from statistical irregularities, the complaint asserts that the county – through the EIR – is unable to adequately tackle the environmental consequences of VMTs because the EIR assumes the VMT issue is regional, necessitating regional measures for effective mitigation. However, the EIR acknowledges the absence of such regional mitigation measures, rendering it impractical to address the projected increase in VMT.

Lastly, the complaint argues the county and Board, by approving the updates to the general plan and zoning ordinance, failed to adhere to the mandates of Assembly Bill (AB) 170 that was enacted in 2003.

The bill required cities and counties in the San Joaquin Valley to amend their general plans to include air quality data, inventories of pollutant emissions, status of attainment of air quality standards, significant emissions source categories and applicable state and federal air quality transportation plans.

According to the complaint, the general plan presented meager information on pollutant emissions and significant source categories. The county presented a single bar graph of emissions broken out into three general categories – mobile, areawide and stationary. The plaintiffs argue that such a generalized graph makes it impossible to determine the oil and gas industry’s contribution or the dairy industry’s contribution to the Valley’s air pollution problem, which the complaint described as some of the filthiest, most unhealthful air quality in the nation.

Darren Fraser
Reporter