What's at stake?
Southwest residents have been trying to stop a rezoning that would lock in industrial businesses in a residential neighborhood. A long history of redlining and environmental racism has left the community with a patchwork of inconsistent land use.
The City of Fresno is planning a change to its zoning ordinance with an eye toward solving the long-running dispute between southwest Fresno residents and developers.
Mayor Jerry Dyer says it’s a win-win compromise. Community leader Ivanka Saunders says it maintains the status quo that has made southwest Fresno the city’s least-healthy neighborhood.
The change gets its first public hearing Monday evening.
Information about the amendment to the zoning code appeared as an agenda item on the Dec. 13 meeting of the Council District 2 Project Review Committee. The proposal would “add Section 15-1615 to Chapter 15 of the Fresno Municipal Code, creating the Neighborhood Industrial Overlay District.” The amendment will be debated at the city’s district-level planning committee meetings before consideration by the Planning Commission and ultimately the City Council.
The new overlay district would allow existing industrial properties to continue operating in perpetuity even if they have been rezoned for mixed-use development, according to a Nov. 15 letter from Fresno planning and development department director Jennifer Clark. The overlay district could be created in any part of the city that has been zoned for mixed-use development. The city has rezoned many parcels currently operating as industrial development to mixed-use, especially where leaders are trying to encourage housing near transit lines, such as Blackstone Avenue.
The change would also affect 92.5 acres of disputed land in southwest Fresno, where community residents have been fighting a proposal by developers to keep the sites as industrial development.
If approved, the amendment sought by the city would lift all restrictions on the land use and give the city authority to determine what it considers to be the appropriate use/zoning for the land.
“With this industrial district overlay, you can now put an Amazon right next to a house again, so that the same environmental injustices that we’ve seen occur can continue to occur,‘‘ said Saunders, with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.
Why is the city taking this step?
Mayor Dyer said the amendment would address the major concerns of both the community as well as the landowners/businesses in the disputed 92.5 acres by ensuring that heavily polluting industries are kept away from the southwest Fresno neighborhood while granting the businesses the ability to continue their operations and get the finances they need.
“We’ve done our best to protect the neighborhoods, while at the same time not shutting down businesses,” the mayor said.
Saunders said, “This ordinance is feeding right into the hands of the developers that want to be able to expand, not only along Elm Avenue” in the disputed 92.5 acres. “It solves that problem, and the developers win.”
Dyer said the proposed ordinance supports the southwest Fresno community’s opposition to more industry.
“It does recognize what has occurred in southwest Fresno with the industrialization of one geography in Fresno, and the impact that has had on that community, which is why we do not want to further expand or intensify use or to create any more of a negative impact on southwest Fresno,” Dyer said. “They’ve had enough of a negative impact over the decades.”
The amendment would bring more stability to the businesses operating in the disputed land, Dyer said. “Some of the businesses that exist on those properties that were rezoned were allowed to operate under what’s called legal nonconforming use,” which “puts those businesses at a higher risk, and therefore the ability to gain financing is significantly impacted.”
On Sept. 1, Dyer and City Councilmember Miguel Arias issued a joint statement saying that they were working with both west Fresno community leaders and the developers and “have identified a path forward that we are hopeful will lead to a mutual agreement.”
Three months later, Dyer said a negotiated settlement is elusive.
“It did not appear, after the number of meetings that we had, that we were going to be able to get to that point,” Dyer said. “That’s why the city put together what we believe will work for both sides and then allow for the Planning Commission and the City Council, the two deciding bodies on land-use issues, to be able to work through the details.”
The “details” involve a dispute that started more than a year ago when the group of landowners and businesses (including 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) sought to rezone the 92.5-acre, 15-parcel site in southwest Fresno from neighborhood mixed use to light industrial use, saying the current zoning jeopardizes the businesses’ ability to obtain financing.
John Kinsey, attorney representing the petitioners, had stated during a virtual town hall meeting on March 1 that some existing businesses in the neighborhood discovered that the zoning does not match their operations, and that changing the zoning back to light industrial would protect their interests.
Members of the southwest community opposed the rezone application, insisting that they fought to rid the neighborhood of industrial zoning, with their efforts culminating in the Southwest Specific Plan, re-designating 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.
It was a two-year process involving a 21-member steering committee and hundreds of community members, and in October 2017, the City Council approved the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan which 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.
“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, at the March 1 meeting. “And let us grow a clean, decent community.”
Dyer insists the city’s plan does not undermine the integrity of the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan, adding that it is “just simply a modification for those properties that had existing businesses on it, and the remaining rezoning will remain in place as was intended” by the 2017 plan.
How does the amendment process work?
Arias said there are two ways that land use designation can be changed. One is by the applicant which already happened in this case about a year ago.
The second: “Now, the city, the mayor is saying, ‘I’m going to apply. I am now the applicant.’”
According to information available at the City of Fresno’s website, the process is protracted and involves many stakeholders. In this case, because it is a citywide ordinance, all seven districts in the city of Fresno will hold public hearings.
“What the city is doing is sneaky,” Saunders said. “So instead of dealing with the issue at hand for southwest Fresno in District 3 (Arias’ council district), they are proposing this to be citywide.”
“And so, it makes it appear that the city is being equitable, but what we know is that they’re never going to truly put industry in north Fresno,” Saunders said. “But we do know that they want to expand industrial developments in all of south Fresno.”
Arias said, “I’m supportive of the mayor initiating the conversation. It’s very rare that any application as submitted, or approved by the Planning Commission, is approved by the Council in its totality. There’s always adjustments that are made in these kinds of matters, especially something as significant as this. Everyone should expect that whatever is initiated will not be the final product.”
Arias said he will “wait until it goes through the neighborhood public, the district and the Planning Commission before I weigh in.”
”I made it clear publicly that the (developers’ rezone) application as submitted does not have my support. But doing nothing would also not have my support in the resolution that works,” Arias said. “And so, you know, the mayor has now taken it upon himself to initiate a text amendment that I’m sure, he feels, strikes that balance.”
Dyer said he expects his proposal will go through modifications, based on community input. “It’s very, very difficult, you know, to get 100% agreement in matters of this complexity.”
How did we get here?
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.
“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 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.”
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.
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.
Feb. 3 2021: A proposal to change the zoning of the 92.53 acres of property bounded by East Vine Avenue to the north, Highway 41 to the east, South Elm Avenue to the west and East Chester/East Samson Avenue to the south was an item on the Planning Commission agenda. The item was continued to March 17 and then to April 7.
April 3, 2021: Insisting he is motivated by the needs and desires of the community, Councilmember Miguel Arias said he would not support the rezone application before the Planning Commission. He said his “main job is to problem-solve and find a solution that works for everyone.”
Among the solutions Arias was considering advancing to both sides:
- 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.
- Rejection of whatever the Planning Commission recommends.
- Modified version of what the applicants are seeking, so instead of rezoning 92-plus acres, this option would seek the rezoning of some of the land, leaving the rest as presently zoned.
- Rezoning 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.
April 7, 2021: The Planning Commission voted unanimously to postpone consideration of the site in southwest Fresno from neighborhood mixed use to light industrial use. Will Tackett, the city planning manager, asked commissioners to continue the item until the city has had opportunity to respond to additional letters opposed to the proposed rezoning.
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.”
Sept. 1, 2021 — The group seeking to rezone the site in southwest Fresno postponed their application, scheduled to be heard by the Planning Commission, opting instead to “continue working on a collaborative solution,” according to a joint statement released by city leaders. According to the statement, Mayor Jerry Dyer and City Councilmember Miguel Arias worked with both west Fresno community leaders and the applicants and “have identified a path forward that we are hopeful will lead to a mutual agreement.”
Negotiations were expected to “develop a proposal for the City Council’s consideration that honors the integrity of the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan, establishes a Southwest Fresno Specific Implementation Committee and ensures businesses operate and make the transition to electrification without intensifying or expanding their use.”
How to participate
Because this text amendment is a citywide ordinance, the project review committee in every district will hold hearings for public input. The first, the District 2 Project Review Committee, meets on Dec. 13 at 5:30 p.m. Participants can log in via Zoom or phone: 323-676-6164 with access code 178973887#. Public comments may also be submitted in advance by emailing Nicholas Caldera at Nicholas.Caldera@fresno.gov.
Danielle Bergstrom, policy editor for Fresnoland, contributed to this story.