When Breonna Howard steps outside her home on Annadale and Elm avenues in southwest Fresno, she inhales some of the unhealthiest air in the nation. She says each breath feels heavy. Howard, 32, her son, 14, her mother, 66, and father, 70, all have asthma and have spent hundreds of hours in doctors’ offices and emergency rooms.

It’s why she does not hesitate to join her neighbors in a fight against a rezoning proposal that could allow existing industrial businesses to expand and intensify operations in an area already impacted by a concentration of polluting industries.

For years, community members fought to rid the neighborhood of industrial zoning, with their efforts culminating in the Southwest Specific Plan that re-designated industrial sites to commercial, mixed-use or office uses, giving residents more say in how current industry can operate. It was a major shift in land use policy.

Now, a group of landowners — including Mid Valley Disposal, Madera developers Peter Stravinski and Tim Mitchell, and Sacramento developer Larry Allbaugh, represented by former Fresno County supervisor and Fresno city councilmember Henry R. Perea — are asking the city to rezone 92 acres and 15 parcels in the area from Neighborhood Mixed Use to Light Industrial Use.

The Fresno Planning Commission will consider the proposed zoning change on April 7. If approved, it would effectively reverse the decision that was long-fought for by the community.

John Kinsey, attorney for the landowners, said during a March 1 meeting with the southwest community that the present zoning is inconsistent and “does not provide the protections that these businesses need to continue operations.”

To Howard, the issue is more than business: “It is literally a fight for life or death.”

How toxic facilities are placed next to homes

June Stanfield, 56, whose home on Ivy Avenue is one block from Mid Valley Recycling, one of the largest businesses in the area, said the city has “always mistreated us. They’ve always ignored us. That’s the reason why that industry is over there in the first place.”

“Just where I live, I can hear the trucks. I can smell the stench, being only a street over,” Stanfield said. “It’s constantly diesel trucks coming in and out, especially at the recycling site — the Mid Valley Recycling.”

The proposal at hand is located in the most polluted and economically disadvantaged census tract in California, according to CalEnviroScreen.

The California Environmental Protection Agency declared in 2013 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.

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.

“If you’re in a neighborhood that was traditionally redlined, and you are in that ZIP code with more toxic facilities, more truck traffic, fewer amenities present, your quality of life has already been compromised,” said Venise Curry, a psychiatrist, environmental activist and southwest Fresno resident.

Unlike other parts of Fresno, where zoning codes prohibited industrial activity from coexisting side-by-side with residential neighborhoods, in southwest Fresno, these uses were allowed to expand, even against the protests of the community.

Fresno’s first general plan in 1918 codified this practice, justifying the need for the working classes to live near their place of work.

The majority of southwest Fresno residents are Latino, Black or Asian.

That history is fresh to residents who still feel the effects, and to advocates fighting against rezoning.

Ivanka Saunders, with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, wrote in a letter to the planning commission that Fresno has used “its city’s southern region as its dumping grounds for any type of land use that is not appropriate for its segregated northern Fresno communities, where affluent Caucasian citizens are the primary demographic.”

A historic plan to right the wrongs

In October 2017, the Fresno City Council approved the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan after a two-year process involving a 21-member steering committee and hundreds of community members.

The plan eliminated industrial zoning in southwest Fresno and replaced it with mixed-use, commercial and office designations, with the purpose of prohibiting new industrial development next to and within southwest Fresno residential neighborhoods, according to Saunders.

Curry, who attended many of the steering committee meetings leading to the plan, told The Bee in 2017, “The biggest issue was to rid our community of zoning that allowed for the consistent dumping of industrial sites into west Fresno.”

In place of industrial sites, she said the plan “allows for a balanced mix of housing, a community college, commercial and retail opportunities, and park space to meet the community’s needs.”

Even so, the authors of the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan allowed for existing businesses to continue operating there.

As Saunders explained, the plan “allowed for the current businesses to continue in their current uses. That was grandfather-claused in.”

It was historic and meant to be long lasting.

“There’s nothing that’s ever been adopted by the City Council on behalf of west Fresno like this in our history,” Oliver Baines, the Fresno City Council representative for District 3 at the time, told The Bee. “What you all as members of the community did is change the community forever.”

And this rezone is the first of what could be a string of reversals: according to a Fresno Bee/Fresnoland public records act request, a second rezone has been filed by Busseto Foods to rezone 18.9 acres of vacant land on the southeast corner of West and Church avenues from Medium-Density Residential to Light Industrial.

Businesses seek zone change back to industrial

Kinsey said some existing businesses in the neighborhood are seeking renewal of their leases and have discovered that the zoning does not match their operations, and changing the zoning back to Light Industrial would protect their interests.

The developers, he said, are fearful that their national tenants will leave Fresno if they cannot achieve consistent zoning.

And, he said, “the inconsistent zoning diminishes the ability of the businesses to attract reputable, responsible and well capitalized tenants that the community deserves.”

However, under the city’s development code, the current industrial operations are considered “legal non-conforming,” meaning they were legally established and can continue to operate indefinitely even with an inconsistent zoning designation. Any expansion or change would require a conditional use permit. Under this scenario, a public notice would be mailed to the neighbors, who could request a public hearing before the planning commission.

On the contrary, under a Light Industrial zone designation, many industrial activities are permitted without a conditional use permit, and could be approved without neighbors being alerted first.

Miguel Arias, District 3 representative on the Fresno City Council, said that allowing the businesses to obtain the funding they need would, in fact, improve the environmental burden.

“It would be a reduction in the footprint because there would be more modern equipment,” Arias said. Some employers are “looking to electrify their operations,” and Mid Valley Disposal is purchasing electric garbage trucks and transitioning from diesel trucks.

“In order for them to do that, they have to be able to borrow money to improve their operations, to meet the incoming requirements of electrification of trucks by 2030,” said Arias, who received $1,500 from Mid Valley Disposal in his 2018 campaign for reelection.

“They’re going down the path that everybody wants — which is electrification and reduction of pollution. But in order to do that, they have to be able to finance, and the financial institutions are very clear about zoning matching what your operation does.”

At the time the properties were developed, the zoning and land use designation of the area was Light Industrial. He said most of the landowners were unaware of the rezone that happened with the Southwest Specific plan in 2017.

“I find it very difficult to believe due to the large media coverage of the specific plan being worked on,” said Robert Mitchell, a southwest Fresno resident and leader, who was part of the committee that created the Southwest Specific Plan. “That is problematic in itself, that at this moment in time, they’re now saying they know nothing of it.”

According to the staff report prepared for the Southwest Specific Plan at the time of adoption, planners noted that at least 37 community meetings were held to deliberate the plan — and landowners were specifically given notice several times and had several opportunities to protest any changes.

The deliberation and adoption process was widely publicized, with notices of meetings posted throughout the neighborhood.

While defending the proposal to rezone, Arias said that Saunders and Debbie Darden, chair of the Golden Westside Planning Committee, both initially approved the project, in their capacity as members of the City Council District 3 Project Review Committee, when the proposal came before them last August.

Both insist they were not informed that the rezone would allow the developers to expand and intensify industrial uses at the site without the community’s explicit permission, and they now oppose the plan.

Proposal to rezone southwest Fresno called ‘deeply disturbing’

When Kinsey showed up to a community meeting about the proposed rezoning on March 1, he got more than he bargained for. For almost 90 minutes, he heard nearly two dozen residents tell him in various ways that they were opposed to what he was seeking.

“This proposal is deeply disturbing,” said Pastor B.T. Lewis of Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church in southwest Fresno.

Saunders, with Leadership Counsel, said the Southwest Fresno plan resulted from the city trying to “right its racially divided and historical wrongs of the past.”

“And yet, once this was adopted and put together, three years later, here we go, again, with people coming in wanting to unwrap the package that was so put together by community leaders,” Darden said.

Residents are concerned a zoning change will do more than protect existing businesses, that it will lead to expanded industrial operations that would undo their previous work and put residents’ health more at risk.

The proposal to change designation to light industrial has created anger, distrust and disappointment among the predominantly Black and Latino residents.

Community representatives expressed their concerns in Zoom meetings between neighborhood residents and agents of the land owners or petitioners for the rezone application, and another meeting with Arias, as well as in about a dozen interviews.

“I am opposed to changing what we spent two years fighting for,” said June Stanfield.

“We want our community to stay as it is,” said Mary Curry, who has lived in southwest Fresno for 60 years and served on the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan committee. “And let us grow a clean, decent community.”

Sylvesta Hall, a local developer who owns property in southwest Fresno, said, “If we start to chip away at the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan’s intent now, we may as well not have ever developed the southwest [plan].”

Is it really a choice of money or health?

The line between the two sides is thick and unyielding, revealing a time-worn debate in Fresno: should the health of a community be pitted against the city’s economic goals?

The city maintains that the proposed rezone is consistent with Fresno General Plan and “supports economic development” while the neighborhood representatives insist that the rezone is just more evidence of structural racism which forces communities of color to live in polluted communities.

According to Kinsey, the city of Fresno’s redevelopment agency in 2000 “actively sought to attract clean industries that provided local jobs to the project area.”

Subsequently, the applicants purchased and developed the properties as clean industrial businesses, providing a home to several local and national employers. The lawyer said the businesses would not change the nature of their operations, and no new construction or land uses are contemplated.

Councilmember Arias said he was concerned that unless the zoning is settled, the businesses would leave the area, resulting in loss of jobs for “approximately 200 people.”

“The vast majority of those employees are former welfare-to-work recipients that are making between $15 and $26 an hour, with healthcare benefits and 401Ks, and are employees of color,” Arias said.

“One building employs 95 folks. Another facility employs 85 people, not counting Mid Valley Disposal, not counting the pharmaceuticals; they employ hundreds of individuals,” he said.

Venise Curry pushed back at any suggestion that the lives of residents need to be sacrificed for economic solvency.

“This has always been the city’s perspective, to hold up the economic benefit to our community,” she said. “We’re not clear on what that is, and then, if there is, how does that balance against a loss of life, a loss of years?”

“We are saying as a community, we have litigated this. We have organized; we’ve done all those things that are necessary to get a specific plan in place, adopted by the planning commission and city council in order to safeguard our community,” Curry said.

“Now we’re being asked to come back and look at it again; it’s the same issue repackaged. And it isn’t in our benefit. And I don’t see how we can support poisoning ourselves. I don’t see how that makes sense.”

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Dr. Dympna Ugwu-Oju is the senior editor for Fresnoland.