UPDATE: The Fresno City Planning Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to postpone consideration of the 92-acre, 15-parcel site in southwest Fresno from Neighborhood Mixed Use to Light Industrial Use.

Will Tackett, planning manager with the City of Fresno, asked commissioners to continue the item until they’ve had opportunity to respond to additional letters opposed to the proposed rezoning.

John Kinsey, attorney for the applicants, said he supported the continuance because “the land owners are not here because of an email [from the planning and development department].”

Kathy Bray, chairperson of the commission urged “people who are making this proposal to try to work out something with the community that makes sense for everyone.” No date has been set for the hearing.

ORIGINAL STORY: Fresno City Councilmember Miguel Arias flipped his stance on the industrial rezone application ahead of the meeting and said he now opposes the application.

“I’ve already made it clear to the applicants that their 92-acre rezone application as presented is not acceptable,” Arias told The Fresno Bee. “The community has made that clear.”

But Arias is looking for common ground, something that neither community leaders nor the rezone applicants say exists.

The rezone applicants — Mid Valley Disposal, Madera developers Peter Stravinski and Tim Mitchell, and Sacramento developer Larry Allbaugh, operating under the business names Mid Valley Recycling; SDG Fresno 570, LLC; Span Development, LLC; and PW Fund B, LP, respectively — are pressing forward, saying the current zoning jeopardizes the businesses’ ability to obtain financing. The city’s development code legally permits industrial uses to continue operating under “legal non-conforming” status, even if the current zone district does not permit them.

Arias is proposing different solutions “to find that balance that the residents are asking for as well as the businesses’ need to continue to operate.” Southwest Fresno community leaders are rejecting all of them.

The councilman asked the applicants to withdraw the case from the agenda for the April 7 Planning Commission meeting. But, “the applicant wants to make sure they get responses to questions that the city’s planning department committed to, before they agree to have it taken off.”

No matter how the Planning Commission decides, Arias said that a permanent solution can only come from a legislative process involving the Fresno City Council.

The Planning Commission meeting begins at 6 p.m. It is not open to in-person attendance but can be seen on Zoom or joined by phone at 669-900-9128 (webinar ID 938 0971 4269). Comments can be made in advance by email; see the agenda for instructions.

Developers dispute legality of current industrial operations

The properties up for rezone were initially designated as industrial sites in 1999, when the City Council approved the South Fresno Industrial Park plan by the former redevelopment agency.

For several decades, southwest Fresno residents have fought parcel by parcel, business by business to protect residential areas from industrial uses. The Southwest Specific Plan, adopted by the Fresno City Council in 2017, was the community’s opportunity to create a more holistic vision for the area.

The final plan eliminated all industrial land use and zoning in the area, but allowed for existing businesses to continue operating, as long as they didn’t modify or expand their operations.

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.

John Kinsey, attorney for the developers, said that the legal non-conforming use provisions of the city code do not “provide much comfort” and are “the driving force behind this rezone request.” He shared that when new tenants in similar buildings with inconsistent zoning had applied for a zone clearance at the city to allow operations, they had been denied.

Kinsey added that “most reputable lenders will not issue loans for non-conforming uses.”

“We are not contemplating any new buildings or different uses,” he wrote in an email. “Rather, we are merely seeking rezone to preserve what is currently there.”

Community members oppose legislative solutions

Arias said his “main job is to problem-solve and find a solution that works for everyone.”

Among the solutions he said he is considering advancing to both sides are:

  1. Dual overlay zoning — where two zoning designations coexist. This is usually applied to areas with different underlying zone districts, but have unique features or characteristics that are common to the parcels within the overlay district.
  2. Rezone a smaller portion of the 92 acres, leaving the rest unchanged.
  3. Rezone the entire area for commercial or business, but not for industrial use — “which limits even further warehouse operations you can have,” Arias said, with the intent to provide centers for convenience shopping in residential neighborhoods.

Southwest community leaders do not want a compromise solution, especially with the understanding that the city still allows the businesses to operate under the present zoning.

“I do not feel the necessity for it [Arias’ plan] when there is a clear zone of neighborhood and mixed use, and the businesses are still allowed to do what they desire to do under the zoning,” said Robert Mitchell, southwest resident and leader with the Golden West Side Planning Committee who was part of the steering committee that created the Southwest Specific Plan.

Dr. Venise Curry, a psychiatrist, environmental activist and southwest Fresno resident, said, “Any rezone to accommodate business owners at the expense of a community-endorsed specific plan, particularly when all previous plans for this area of the city have been nullified by decades of inaction and disinvestment, is counter to the will and intent of west Fresno families.”

Arias said that “everybody in this equation has legitimate concerns” and that a permanent solution must be acceptable to both sides. The community’s fight to stop being the city’s “dumping grounds” and its environmental and health concerns must be balanced against the businesses, who, Arias said, have made huge financial investments and have created jobs that benefit the community.

“The community advocates are putting at risk a large number of local employers and substantial tax revenue to the City,” Kinsey, the attorney for the land owners, told The Bee via email. “They are also putting the landowners and the city at risk of losing clean businesses and good-paying jobs to cities out of the area.”

That was what Arias wanted the public to see on March 26 when he hosted a guided tour of three businesses operating in the disputed zone: IFCO Systems, a company that washes agricultural bins; Plastic Industries, Inc., a plastic fabrication company and Glaxosmithkline, a pharmaceutical preparations plant.

LeAnn Eager, CEO of the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation, who joined the tour, said she believed it would dissipate rumors that the businesses were engaging in highly polluting operations.

Campaign contributions and connections

Henry R. Perea, the former Fresno County supervisor and city councilmember, is representing Stravinski’s company SDG Fresno 570, LLC as a registered lobbyist, according to the city’s filings as of March 2021. Perea served on the Fresno City Council when the properties were initially developed.

Arias has received $3,000 in campaign contributions from Mid Valley Disposal since 2018. Stravinski and associated family members have given $14,100 to State Center Community College District Trustee Annalisa Perea, daughter of Henry R. Perea, for her 2022 Fresno City Council District 1 campaign.

Rezone would negate a historic plan

If approved, the rezoning would allow existing industrial businesses in southwest Fresno to expand and intensify operations in an area already impacted by a concentration of polluting industries and effectively reverse the decision that was long-fought for by the community when they created the Southwest Specific Plan in 2017.

If the properties are rezoned to Light Industrial, the neighbors would not be alerted if the current or future owners of the site decided to modify or expand operations.

“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.”

A history of environmental racism

“Residents were loud and clear just two years ago when they committed to a multi-year West Fresno Specific planning process, led by the City of Fresno, that resulted in the Historic adoption by residents and City Council to undo decades of racist zoning laws,” said Eric Payne, a resident and executive director of the Central Valley Urban Institute.

In a March 9 letter to the Planning Commission, members of the southwest community accused the City of Fresno of using its southern region “as its dumping grounds for any type of land use that is not “deemed” appropriate for its segregated northern Fresno communities, where affluent Caucasian citizens are the primary demographic.”

According to the letter, the “city’s segregation is no accident as this country’s history of redlining as well as discriminatory investment and development practices, have created the tale of two cities we have today.”

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

The proposal at hand is for tracts of land 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.

At a news conference before the March 26 tour, Curry tied the environmental pollution created by industries in southwest Fresno to the poor health outcomes for the residents.

“Our city would ask us to please allow more industry on this site. Why? For us to shorten our lifespan, for us to be impacted by diabetes and high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease at higher rates than any place in the city?” Curry said.

“The fact that we are dying at a rate higher during this COVID pandemic is no surprise, given that our numbers of high blood pressure are elevated. Our numbers for diabetes, or asthma for chronic breathing disorders are all elevated.”

Community is unified against rezoning

Residents of the southwest Fresno neighborhood have fought this battle for many decades and are solidly unified in their determination to block the rezone efforts.

“We are here fighting for life,” Curry said. “And we will continue to do so.”

A coalition of southwest Fresno representatives — Curry; Mitchell; Rev. Booker T. Lewis, pastor of the Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church in southwest Fresno; Mary Curry of the Concerned Citizens of West Fresno and Ivanka Saunders, policy adviser for Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability and Robert Mitchell of the Golden Westside Planning Committee — spoke at the March 26 news conference in front of the Clinica Sierra Vista parking lot, on South Elm Avenue,

“We need our city to learn to do good for all of our residents. We need our city to seek social and environmental justice for every neighborhood. We need our city to stand and rebuke oppressive systems and policies that hinder equity in our city,” Lewis said. “Then we need our city to hear the voices of the voiceless and to defend those that are defenseless.”

Danielle Bergstrom, policy and engagement editor for Fresnoland, contributed to this report.

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