West Fresno advocates Deborah Darden and Bob Mitchell walk by a heap of trash near a bridge that at one time connected west Fresno to a popular park. Now Highway 41 has cut off west Fresno from that part of town and the park is now a dirt lot used to store moving trailers.

Fresno Bee file

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Good morning, and welcome to the Fresnoland Lab newsletter. Today is Tuesday, March 16.

This week in Fresnoland, Monica wrote about how the storm that swept through the region on Wednesday could have posed a threat of catastrophic debris flow, mudslide or rockfall because of the Creek Fire. Cassandra wrote how to apply for the nearly $35 million rent relief to renters and landlords in Fresno impacted by the pandemic.

It’s Dympna Ugwu-Oju, editor of Fresnoland, here. For the last few weeks, I have been reporting on a developing story involving the southwest Fresno community, the Fresno Planning Department, and some landowners of 92.53 acres of land in southwest Fresno. The case will be heard by the Fresno Planning Commission on April 4.

At the heart of the matter is whether Fresno city officials should rezone the site to light industrial — after the community members had spent two years to create their own specific plan for the area to eliminate industrial uses from southwest Fresno, culminating in the Southwest Specific Plan. The plan was approved by the city council in October of 2017. The controversial lands are zoned for neighborhood mixed use, which is what many in the neighborhood prefer. The landowners want it rezoned to light industrial use to match the industries that are currently on the site. A rezone could make it easier to expand or intensify their operations in the future.

Incidentally, last week, Brianna Calix wrote about an unprecedented settlement agreement just across the 41 freeway that establishes a community benefit fund for south central Fresno residents because of the anticipated increased traffic, noise, light and air pollution from the construction of a second Amazon fulfillment center.

On the surface, the two issues seem similar. The neighborhoods, both in the southern part of Fresno — southwest and south central — are plagued with similar circumstances and have almost identical concerns, but most importantly, both areas are some of the most pollution-burdened in the state.

Some people are questioning why there seems to be different standards in resolving neighborhood concerns about controlling pollution in their environments. Why has the Fresno City Council responded to the demands of the south central community while seemingly ignoring requests by southwest residents to preserve their neighborhood specific plan?

For answers, I asked Robert Mitchell, a southwest Fresno resident and leader, who was part of the committee that created the Southwest Specific Plan, to explain the difference between the situation in southwest and south central Fresno.

Below are Mitchell’s answers to my questions.

Why was there a negotiated agreement with Amazon for the south central community, whereas in the case of the Southwest, there does not seem to be any negotiation taking place?

There is a circumstance that exists in the southwest wherein the present [industrial] businesses are there and are eligible to continue to operate by being grandfathered in [under the current zoning, Neighborhood Mixed Use]. Amazon wishes to locate on a site where they are not presently established. One of the things that happens is that when new commerce comes into an area, depending on the type of commerce, the number of vehicles on the roadways begins to increase. As part of the community benefit agreement, monies from the Amazon company will be utilized to maintain those roadways which they are utilizing and impacting adversely, rather than the city having to come up with funds to maintain them.

If the landowners or the lessees of the 92 acres in southwest made such an offer where they would take full responsibility for the damage that’s caused on the roads or do something about the environmental damage — would that be something that the southwest community is willing to negotiate?

No, I do not think that is something that we wish to negotiate because of the circumstances that are impacting us and have been proven to impact our community as a result of certain types of industries. That was the original reason for the consideration that caused the Southwest Specific Plan to initiate the zoning change in that area. We worked for a considerable amount of time on this specific plan to make certain that we could change the type of activities that were occurring in our community, relative to zoning that gives us a much healthier, much safer community and environment.

What is going to be next if the Planning Commission says yes, we support the rezoning proposal?

We are hopeful that those who are sitting on the Planning Commission will have looked at the purpose of the Southwest Specific Plan and the residents of our community and that they will give consideration to the historical facts of what has been done to damage our community by inappropriate zoning. And that they’ll recognize the fact that those who are asking for the rezone are not being harmed in any way, shape or form, and that they are grandfathered in, and it says it is an unnecessary action that has been put forth. Should they not take all that into consideration? It would be a really difficult thing for me to understand. If they vote to allow it to occur, you will then go before the city council. At that point, our community will have to again address the city council, advising them as to our reasoning, which I can’t understand how they don’t understand the case. We objected vehemently to this position.

South Central residents and business owners, along with the city, are also in the process of creating a specific plan for the same reason the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan was created. Given the experience that your community has had with this rezoning effort, does having a specific plan in place prevent anything that the city of Fresno wants to happen?

I think it does work. It is incumbent on those who are in governance, to honor and respect what work has been done by an entire group of individuals from various backgrounds and who spent an enormous amount of time dissecting the issues and coming up with valid reasons for the decisions that they arrive at. But I think we’re in a time where everything points to the reality that there is a need to reevaluate the manner in which things are done and have been done. And the specific plan tries to address that for our community. So hopefully those who are in governance — the mayor and the city council — are understanding that fact and will work towards seeing that they are completely supportive.

Is there anything that the community is willing to compromise on, in terms of making sure that the businesses and the landowners feel like they’ve gotten some concessions?

The compromise is that when the specific plan was enacted, it stated that we are not trying to stop you from doing what you’re doing. You can continue what you’re doing on those sites indefinitely. Are you the owner, or the operator? We are not stopping the businesses from operating. I want to be very clear about that because maybe that’s a misconception in the broader community. Those businesses can continue to operate at their present level and produce what they’re producing at their present level.

And now, the week’s top reads:

(For the most recent local coronavirus updates, visit www.fresnobee.com/coronavirus.)

Housing, Transportation, and Land Use

Potential eviction crisis looms for Fresno-area undocumented workers during the pandemic. Fresno Bee

Tulare County Project Homekey homeless project hobbled by substandard conditions, mismanagement. Visalia Times-Delta

Fresno man evicted while fighting cancer gets an early win from judge: his landlord has to foot his motel-room bill. Fresno Bee

The Fresno City Council unanimously approved an “unprecedented” settlement agreement that establishes a community benefit fund for South Central Fresno residents facing increased traffic, noise, light and air pollution from the construction of a second Amazon fulfillment center. Fresno Bee

Building in the danger zone: Attorney General Xavier Becerra is going after one of wildfire’s easiest targets, suburban sprawl. San Francisco Chronicle

There is a growing movement in cities across California to rethink traditional single-family neighborhoods as way to tackle high housing costs and redress decades of racial segregation in housing. NPR.org

Federal courts keep chipping away at the federal CDC eviction moratorium. Bloomberg

What happens when investment firms acquire trailer parks? The New Yorker

Renting is terrible. Owning is worse. Here’s a third way. The Atlantic Ideas

Economy and Neighborhood Inequality

Las mujeres valientes de Cantua Creek (the brave women of Cantua Creek). Vida en el Valle

The pandemic is speeding up the rush to automate some jobs — especially those in sales, service, food, and customer service. CalMatters

Man is suing the Visalia Police Department for assault, dog mauling from January 2020 incident. Foothill Sun Gazette

Lindsay city officials clean up past mistakes in new audit. Foothill Sun Gazette

California will recover faster from the pandemic than the rest of the US, forecast says. Los Angeles Times

Social workers instead of police? Denver’s 911 experiment is a promising start. Curbed

Socially disadvantaged farmers — African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans and Native Americans — are in line for the $4 billion going toward debt relief for “socially disadvantaged” farmers. NPR.org

Water and Air Quality

Environmental and community groups have sued Kern County after the county board of supervisors approved a plan to fast-track thousands of new wells. in a state that’s positioned itself as a leader in combating climate change that could lead to approval of more than 40,000 new oil and gas wells over roughly 15 years. Fresno Business Journal

California first to tackle microplastics in drinking water. Is it premature or precautiouary? CalMatters

Here’s why your electricity prices are high and soaring. CalMatters

The world’s major automakers seem to believe that electric vehicles will dominate their industry in the years ahead, but are consumers ready to embrace it? Fresno Business Journal

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