Members of the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, from left, Nathan Magsig, Steve Brandau, Brian Pacheco and Buddy Mendes hold a news conference outside the Hall of Records in downtown Fresno on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. Credit: Craig Kohlruss / The Fresno Bee

What's at stake?

Calwa and Malaga - unincorporated communities in Fresno County - have been increasingly surrounded by expanding warehouses and industrial uses, contributing to local air pollution.

This story was originally published at fresnobee.com on May 3, 2022.

A month after California’s top lawyer warned that Fresno County’s general plan “likely” violates various laws, county officials responded, claiming the attorney general is putting “undue political pressure” on the county.

Paul Nerland, administrative officer for Fresno County, responded to the attorney general’s office last week and said the county was “quite concerned” about how the attorney general provided feedback in a public manner.

California’s Attorney General Rob Bonta, on March 29, issued a letter to Fresno County leaders warning that the current version of the draft General Plan potentially violated housing discrimination and environmental laws. The General Plan is a framework produced by the Department of Public Works and Planning that guides Fresno County’s future land use, housing, and development decisions.

The attorney general’s letter focused in particular on industrial development around Fresno County’s unincorporated areas of Calwa and Malaga – majority Latino communities that are among the most polluted in the state.

Nerland’s letter defended the general plan, saying there is “no such intent” of discrimination in its industrial zoning plans near Calwa and Malaga.

He also asked the attorney general’s office to provide more “specific solutions,” such as examples of acceptable environmental justice policies and guidance on where the county should encourage industrial development in Fresno County.

Responding to the county’s concern, a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office stated in an email statement on Tuesday that their office often provides written comments to local governments across the state during the administrative process of developing their general plans. “As Attorney General Bonta said when the letter was submitted, we hope the County will take this opportunity to course correct,” the spokesperson said.

Community advocates say the county’s “defensive response” letter to the attorney general was “disappointing.”

“We would hope that the county examines its approach (to the general plan) and changes it to really listen to what residents have been raising for many years,” said Ashley Werner, directing attorney for Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.

One such resident is Laura Moreno, executive director of Friends of Calwa. Moreno, 60, remembers growing up in Calwa before it became a hub for industrial development.

“I’ve seen it go from good to worse, and it’s not getting better,” Moreno said. “It’s not acceptable; it’s too much.”

Is Fresno County ‘passing the buck’ on responsibilities?

Werner said she didn’t expect Fresno County leaders to ask the attorney general to identify appropriate places for industrial development.

“To me, that is a surprising request,” said Werner. “The county is best positioned to evaluate appropriate locations for all types of land uses. The attorney general is not well-positioned to do that,” she said.

“Rather than passing the buck and asking the attorney general to do the county’s job, the county should use this opportunity to embark on a different type of planning process” that balances economic development with public health, she said.

Werner said the county “has never demonstrated an effort” to look for alternative locations to plan for responsible industrial development.

“The county has a lot of land,” she said. “There’s no reason why it only needs to go next door to, and in, Malaga and Calwa and other south Fresno neighborhoods,” which are among the most environmentally burdened in the state.

Moreno of Friends of Calwa said she also hopes the county considers the health of Calwa and Malaga residents. Moreno said she developed asthma later in life and thinks it was prompted by the “horrible” air quality in Calwa.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve had to go and get asthma medication because of the air quality,” she said, adding that her organization monitors the air quality daily and is planning to conduct a survey to gather data on how many Calwa residents suffer from asthma.

“On the days (the air quality) is so bad, we call our residents and let them know ‘the air is so bad, don’t go out’,” Moreno said. “Why should we have to do that?”

Message to county leaders: ‘listen to the community’

Legal aid groups and Calwa residents say that last month’s warning from the attorney general means it’s time for Fresno County to listen to the concerns of its residents.

Mariah Thompson, staff attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance, one of the groups that submitted a public comment to the county on its draft general plan, stated in an email to The Bee that the county shouldn’t have been surprised by anything in the attorney general’s letter, “unless they hadn’t actually read the comments CRLA and others submitted.”

“The AG (attorney general) ’s legal arguments weren’t anything beyond that had already been communicated to the County by attorneys at CRLA and other legal and policy organizations,” she said. “The AG actually cited existing legal arguments in public comment letters in making those assertions.”

Moreno said she hopes the county takes the attorney general’s warning seriously and pays attention to what residents want to see in their community, such as a medical center, more parks, and a grocery store.

“Listen to the community,” said Moreno. “Take an interest in the community, not just industrial (interests).”

County leaders say they plan to address the issues raised by the attorney general.

“The County is looking forward to working together and building a collaborative relationship with the Attorney General so that we may effectively and productively address any concerns in the draft General Plan documents,” said Fresno County’s Public Information Officer, Sonja Dosti, in an email statement to The Bee on Monday. Dosti said the county will also “utilize the Attorney General’s expertise to ensure our adopted General Plan considers the needs of our diverse community.”

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.

Those interested in submitting comments should contact: Chris Motta, principal planner by email at cmotta@FresnoCountyCA.gov or by phone at 559-600-4497.

Editor’s note: this story has been updated Apr. 28, 2022 to include a statement from Fresno County’s public information officer sent to The Bee on Apr. 25, 2022. A previous version did not include the statement.

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Melissa is a labor and economic inequality reporter with The Fresno Bee and Fresnoland.

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