The Clovis City Council voted Monday to reduce its sphere of influence northeast of the city by about 1,000 acres after a developer discovered a habitat of California tiger salamanders — which are threatened in the Central Valley and endangered in other parts of California.

Wilson Homes requested that the city adopt only 155 acres into its SOI to avoid a lengthy process, and instead of the originally planned 350 acres of development, the developer would develop roughly 75 acres, which according to available documents, was their initial plan in March 2020.

“Although we believe development is still feasible in that area, the process clearly will be exceptionally time consuming, with an undefinable timeline,” Wilson Homes chief operating officer Jeffrey Harris wrote in an email to the city regarding the change in request.

The City Council voted 5-0 to approve the request, but council members expressed frustration with the process.

“The council and the city was looking forward to the size that was coming in because I think it helps us prepare for the future,” Councilmember Vong Mouanoutoua said at the Nov. 1 meeting.

Mouanoutoua said the decrease from 1,050 acres to 155 acres is a “significant reduction,” to which Councilmember Lynn Ashbeck agreed. The new boundaries would be between Perrin Avenue to Shepard Avenue and Sunnyside Avenue to Fowler Avenue.

“I think this takes a lot of land out of the mix,” Ashbeck said. “I do think if there’s one tiger salamander there could be just one but we don’t know where it is, apparently it’s right here.”

In March 2020, the council moved forward with an environmental impact review for 1,050 acres to be adopted into the city’s sphere of influence — the boundary adopted by the Fresno Local Agency Formation Commission that determines where a city’s urban area will likely grow in the future.

The expansion proposal was initiated by Land Development Services on behalf of Wilson Homes which wanted to develop roughly 350 acres of the area, within the boundaries of Shepherd Avenue to Behymer Avenue and between Sunnyside Avenue and the Dry Creek Reservoir.

Fresno area is critical habitat for California Tiger Salamander

In a July environmental report, Kathy Kinsland, senior biologist at Argonaut Ecological Consulting, noted that land within the proposed development area was the site of a potential California tiger salamander breeding habitat, which had been identified in 2017, according to Harris’ email to the city.

The California tiger salamander is an endangered species in the Sonoma County and Santa Barbara County regions and threatened species in the Central Valley according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Fish and Wildlife Service states that “the primary cause of the decline of California tiger salamander populations is the loss and fragmentation of habitat from urban development and farming.”

Fresno County and other areas within the central San Joaquin Valley have been designated as critical habitats for the salamanders that live in grasslands and foothills.

According to the developer’s report to the city, in order to develop the land in the area where the salamander was found, they would likely need to conduct a “drift fence survey” which would require counting the number of salamanders for two wet seasons — which generally means more than just a few days of rain.

“I mean, legitimately, when was the last time we had two wet years? Like a decade ago?” Ashbeck said at the council meeting. “That’s an unfortunate criteria that probably nobody imagined in a drought generation, (we) may never have that again.”

If the developers and city were to displace the salamanders, the agencies would generally be required to provide three acres of approved California tiger salamander habitat for every acre taken away. However, according to Wilson Homes, most of the approved land in the area has been acquired by the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

Dirk Poeschel, principal planner with Land Development Services, Inc. in Fresno said that because of the discovery of the endangered species’ habitat, Wilson Homes is now focusing on roughly 75 acres, with the potential of expanding the sphere in the future.

“We also want to express our concern and frustration with the California Environmental Quality Act,” Poeschel said during public comment at the Nov. 1 meeting. “We thought that the larger boundary would provide some economies of scale and a larger look at the development along Shepherd (Avenue). So we share many of the same ideas that the council does.”

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Cassandra is a housing and engagement reporter with Fresnoland.

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