California’s top law official warned Fresno County leaders that the current draft of the county’s General Plan —which guides the county’s future land use, housing, and development decisions — raises “civil rights and environmental justice concerns.”
In a nine-page letter sent on Tuesday to the Fresno County Department of Public Works and Planning, Attorney General Rob Bonta and deputy attorneys general Robert Swanson and Mari Mayeda — urged county leaders to fix the Fresno County General Plan.
The letter said the plan fails to comply with laws requiring it to address environmental impacts on vulnerable communities. Also, the letter warns that the plan “likely” violates the Fair Employment and Housing Act.
Some elements of the General Plan appear “inconsistent with race discrimination in housing laws, the County’s mandatory duty to affirmatively further fair housing, and the air district’s community emissions reduction plan,” said the letter.
“In crafting a general plan, local governments have the opportunity to think critically about future growth in their communities and promote policies that address historical inequities in their land use planning,” Bonta said. “Instead, Fresno County drafted a plan that explicitly targets communities already heavily burdened by pollution for new industrial development.”
The letter is particularly concerned about the plan’s inclusion of new industrial developments in Malaga and Calwa, two of the most pollution-burdened communities in the state.
According to the letter, “the county’s ‘clear commitment’ and ‘unequivocal directive’ to prioritize Malaga and Calwa for new or redeveloped industrial sites in light of the known pollution burdens, health risks and population demographics raises civil rights and environmental justice concerns.”
County officials responded to the letter on Tuesday afternoon.
“We welcome Attorney General Rob Bonta’s comments and will continue working with his office and the community to assure that the final, adopted General Plan is in full compliance with all applicable laws and provides a viable long-term framework for future growth in Fresno County,” wrote Sonja Dosti, Fresno County public information officer, in an email statement to The Bee.
Concerns with Fresno County’s General Plan
According to the Fresno County website, the General Plan is a “comprehensive, long-term framework for the protection of the county’s agricultural, natural, and cultural resources and for development in the county.”
The Department of Public Works and Planning is currently in the process of reviewing and revising the General Plan and Zoning Ordinance for Fresno County and plans to hold final adoption hearings this fall.
Fresno County’s proposal includes new industrial sites in Malaga and Calwa, two communities that are among the most environmentally vulnerable in the state. Residents of Malaga and Calwa are disproportionately Hispanic, 75.2% and 81.1%, respectively.
Both communities also experience high rates of poverty. According to census and state demographic data, 64% of people in Malaga and 59% of people in Calwa have incomes that are two times below the federal poverty rate; 84% of students at Malaga Elementary School and 96% of students at Calwa Elementary School qualify for free or reduced-cost meals.
In addition, the plan is “inconsistent” with the Community Emissions Reduction Plan adopted by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, the letter claims.
The General Plan also fails to comply with Senate Bill 1000, a state law that requires local governments to address environmental justice in their land use planning.
“To comply with SB 1000, the General Plan must identify and describe any disadvantaged communities in its jurisdiction, include meaningful and tailored environmental justice goals, policies, and objectives to address the needs of these communities, and be developed in coordination with the local community,” officials said in the news release.
SB 1000 requires the county to adopt policies that “reduce pollution exposure,” but in its current form, the county’s plan fails to do so. While Fresno County’s General Plan identifies over 60 disadvantaged communities that suffer from poor air quality, a lack of clean water, pesticide exposure, and/or proximity to contaminated sites, the letter said a detailed plan to address these inequities is “lacking.”
According to the letter, the environmental policies outlined in Fresno County’s General Plan are already required by state law or are “so vague” as to be “unenforceable.” “Due to their vagueness, it’s unclear what, if any, impact these policies would have for disadvantaged communities in the County’s planning area.”
The Fresno County General Plan, according to the letter, fails to “adopt climate adaptation resiliency strategies” and has failed to prepare a vulnerability assessment or provide “climate adaptation and resilience goals, policies, objectives, or implementation measures, as required by Government Code, section 65302.”
Earlier this month, the Board of Supervisors voted against executing a public health department grant that would have studied the impacts of climate change on the county’s most vulnerable residents. “We remind the County that equity ‘should be treated as a critical component of all planning, including climate adaptation planning,’” said the letter.
Health, environmental conditions in Southeast Fresno
The California Air Resources Board has designated South Central Fresno, including Malaga and Calwa, as “highest priority locations” for community air monitoring stations.
According to CalEnviroScreen, Malaga and Calwa rank among the most polluted census tracts statewide for particulate matter pollution, toxic releases, clean-up sites, groundwater threats, hazardous waste, and solid waste, and its residents suffer from increased risk of asthma, cardiovascular disease, and other health burdens as a result.
CalEnviroScreen 4.0 ranks Malaga in the 100th percentile for pollution burden and Calwa in the 99th percentile for pollution. Asthma rates are in the 93rd, and 94th percentile for Malaga and Calwa residents, respectively, and cardiovascular disease rates are in the 71st and 74th percentiles in these communities.
New industrial development in these communities would exacerbate existing pollution and health burdens, the letter stated. “The County appears to be aware of this fact.”
The letter stated that the attorney general’s office has no problems with the County’s plan to build new industrial sites in the Golden State Industrial Corridor region but suggests that the county identify land away from residences or other sensitive uses.
“I urge Fresno to take this opportunity to course correct,” Bonta said. “Fresno’s general plan must protect the health and safety of all of its residents, including those living in the more than 60 communities Fresno has identified as disadvantaged.”
Fresno County, community leaders respond to the letter
For years, residents and advocates of southeast and central Fresno have criticized the industrial developments in their neighborhoods. They have asked for increased engagement of communities like Malaga and Calwa that are located near the city and county’s industrial growth regions.
Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability has worked with unincorporated residents of the county since 2013 and said that surrounding communities do not want industrial developments in their neighborhoods.
“I don’t know anybody who has ever said, ‘I want industrial development in my neighborhood or across from my home,’” said Directing Attorney Ashley Werner. “Yet our city of Fresno and the county of Fresno act like they’re doing residents a favor” by bringing the projects and promised jobs into the communities.
The organization has pressured the county to update the General Plan to comply with state laws. In 2019, Leadership Counsel sued Fresno County on behalf of Comunidades Unidas Por Un Cambio (Communities United for Change), and secured a court order demanding the county’s General Plan comply with state housing laws, said Werner. The county is still implementing the necessary changes, well beyond the initial court order deadline.
Werner celebrated the news of the attorney general’s letter in a Tuesday interview with The Bee.
“It’s letters like this that should really make us wake up and demand policy change,” she said.
Werner said she hopes for a “really serious and detailed response” from the county that addresses all of the concerns outlined in the attorney general’s letter.” She also said she hopes to see “direct community engagement” from the county with concerned community members to explain how they are going to comply with their fair housing and civil rights obligations, including the industrial zoning in overburdened communities of color.
Fresno County officials said on Tuesday afternoon that they were open to the attorney general’s feedback.
“Fresno County is in the process of reviewing and revising its General Plan. This is a complicated process and there are many new laws that have been passed in recent years which must be addressed in the County’s General Plan,” Dosti stated.
Anyone interested to learn more about the General Plan can visit the Fresno County website for more information.
Those interested to submit comments should contact: Chris Motta, principal planner by email at cmotta@FresnoCountyCA.gov or by phone at (559) 600-4497.
Melissa Montalvo is a reporter with The Fresno Bee and a Report for America corps member. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.