Standing at the entrance to Fresno County’s Lost Lake Park, Dennis Bacopulos, a developer proposing the 2,500-home Friant Ranch development in the foothills just south of the town of Friant, holds an artist’s rendering and points out how the development will appear in the hills across Friant Road.

FRESNO BEE FILE

Fresno County supervisors have voted unanimously to rescind their approval of the Friant Ranch development, concluding a decade of litigation against the controversial project.

The Friant Ranch project envisioned a new town of 9,000 people, with 2,500 homes and over 250,000 square feet of commercial space, nestled in the foothills above Fresno. Most of the homes would be for seniors 55 years and older, with some homes set aside for the work force.

The ranch, operated under the name Friant Ranch, L.P., is owned by Madera County state Assemblymember Frank Bigelow, R-O’Neals, and the Bigelow-Silkwood family.

“Is this project ever going to happen? The answer is yes. My message to everyone paying attention is that we are committed to this project,” said Supervisor Steve Brandau at Tuesday’s meeting.

A new environmental impact report for the project is being prepared now.

“Today’s action is another hurdle,” said Dennis Bacopulos, operations manager for the project, at the meeting. “But we will overcome it. We look forward to working with staff to complete the project.”

The developer is paying about $300,000 for a new environmental impact report and up to $395,000 for Fresno County staff time and outside legal counsel assisting the project, according to former Fresno County spokesperson Jordan Scott, The Bee reported in December.

Judges say project creates too much air pollution

The action by the supervisors comes at the order of Fresno County Judge Kristi Culver Kapetan, in a writ of mandate issued on Feb. 16.

On Nov. 24, 2020, the Fifth District Court of Appeal upheld the California Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in December 2018 that the project’s air quality analysis was flawed.

According to the California Supreme Court, the project’s air quality analysis did not include data showing how much — or at what concentration — the pollutants produced from the project would add to health issues for residents.

The pollutants will come from expected car trips that residents of the development will make — southwest, down Friant Road, for about nine miles into Fresno — where hospitals, medical offices, and other basic services are located. There is no public transit serving the Friant/Millerton area.

Residents in the San Joaquin Valley breathe some of the worst air in the country. A majority of the Valley’s air pollution comes from transportation, and trucks, in particular.

Litigation began in 2011, shortly after the Fresno County Board of Supervisors approved the Friant Ranch project and its environmental impact report. Nonprofit groups, including the Sierra Club, League of Women Voters, and Revive the San Joaquin, filed the lawsuit to stop the project. A separate lawsuit, filed by the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust, was settled in 2014.

Back to the drawing board

Gary Lasky and Ron Martin with the Tehipite Chapter of the Sierra Club, along with Marianne Kast and Radley Reep of the League of Women Voters said environmental advocates will be paying close attention to the project’s impacts on air quality, groundwater and surface water supplies, greenhouse gas emissions, wildfire risk, affordable housing, and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s commitment to preserving 30% of its land and coastal habitat by 2030.

“Consideration of air quality and health impacts represents the minimum the County must do to show its commitment to the well being of its existing residents,” said Mariana Alvarenga, a Policy Advocate with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, in an emailed statement.

The original Friant Ranch project was conceptualized in the late 1990s and approved by the Board of Supervisors in 2011. And while the primary litigation centered around air pollution generated from the development, much has changed in the last decade — including a crippling drought, state groundwater legislation, and intensifying wildfires in more densely populated areas.

County Counsel Daniel Cederborg acknowledged that while the main focus of the environmental impact report revisions are on the air quality impacts, there could be other changes, given the shifting legal environment in the past decade.

The project’s water supply is questionable. The developer purchased 2,000 acre-feet per year of Central Valley Project, Class 1 Friant water which is stored in Millerton Lake from the Lower Tule River Irrigation District, headquartered in Tipton. The developer had purchased the water contract in 2008, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation approved the permanent transfer of water — from irrigating Tulare County farms to growing a new Fresno County city — in 2013.

The Lower Tule River Irrigation District is located within a critically overdrafted groundwater basin and has lost roughly 398,000 acre-feet of groundwater storage in the underground aquifer between the 2018-2020 water years, according to the district’s annual report to the state.

Friant water contractors, who hold the water in Millerton Lake, received a zero allocation of water from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation during the critical drought years of 2014 and 2015.

A Friant-Millerton Regional Plan

Reep, with the League of Women Voters, also points out that Friant Ranch is inconsistent with the County’s own general plan, which directs new growth to existing urban centers and communities, in order to both conserve taxpayer dollars on infrastructure as well as realize air quality benefits. The plan includes a policy that requires the county to develop a Friant-Millerton Regional Plan prior to developing the area.

Fresno County, which hasn’t formally updated its general plan — the blueprint for future growth and investment — since 2000, is in the middle of revising it. But they never adopted a Friant-Millerton Regional Plan. The Friant Ranch project included a specific plan, which examined infrastructure and environmental burdens within the project area.

And new subdivisions at nearby Millerton New Town, just a mile east — have been steadily growing. On the north side of Millerton Road, the Table Mountain Rancheria has plans to build a 14-story, 151 room hotel and expand its casino facilities.

“Instead of focusing on exclusive ‘new town’ development,” Alvarenga stated, “Fresno County needs to focus on meeting the County’s serious housing needs by investing in existing communities.”

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