Fresno City Councilmember Miguel Arias speaks to a large crowd of supporters during a watch party at Full Circle Brewing in downtown Fresno on Tuesday, June 7, 2022.

What's at stake:

Southwest Fresno has “some of the highest asthma, low birth weight, and cardiovascular disease levels in the state,” Attorney General Bonta stated in a news release.

If the District 3 Councilmember, Miguel Arias, has his way Thursday, the Fresno City Council would reject the application to rezone  92.5-acre, 15-parcel site in southwest Fresno from neighborhood mixed use to light industrial use, when it considers the case. 

Instead, Arias wants his colleagues to support his own proposal – a plan that is neither supported by the southwest Fresno community nor the rezone applicants – but one he says would bring a solution to this problem.

“It’s been two and a half years of listening to as many voices as possible. And the one thing that I have taken away is, there isn’t uniform support on any of the options that has surfaced thus far,” he said in an interview with Fresnoland on Wednesday.

Arias said his plan is “a compromise that leads to meeting the goals of the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan, which is a reduction of greenhouse gasses, pollution, truck and vehicle traffic, and allows that energy transition to cleaner uses.”

It also allows a smaller area, about a third of the 92.5 acres, to be rezoned to light industrial to accommodate the garbage facility and the pharmaceutical distribution centers, the two businesses that are industrial in nature.  The proposed industrial areas include the tracts north of Annandale, down the freeway and Vine Street.

 The rest or two thirds of the parcel of land shall remain in its current zoning, which is mixed use, residential.

“I’ve heard from the community, ‘we want these businesses to continue. We don’t want to shut them down.’ They’ve said that on the record. They said that to me privately,” Arias said. 

“I heard from the businesses. ‘We don’t want to expand. We just want to continue to borrow, operate and to transition to electrification.’ 

Robert Mitchell, co-chair of the Golden West Side Planning Committee, called Arias’ plan “an unfortunate action.”

“It does not have the safeguards that we in our community desire. It falls far short of what has been proposed in the ‘Cleaner and Greener Neighborhood Industrial overlay district (proposed by the Dyer administration),” Mitchell said. “It is not something that I will be in support of, and I know that there are other individuals who have stated they are not in support.”

Eric Payne, executive director of the Central Valley Urban Institute, said Arias’ plan “conflicts with the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan and would expose the surrounding community to increased environmental hazards, thereby violating the City’s obligations under fair housing laws.”

No other way out of the present situation

Others, including Mayor Jerry Dyer have intervened in the long-running dispute.  In December 2021, the mayor proposed adding an industrial overlay district in the 92.5 acres of disputed land in southwest Fresno. The plan was approved by the City’s planning commission in May. 

Arias said that the mayor’s overlay plan, “at this point, is an idea. It’s not finalized.” Besides, the plan does not have wide support. “The community has their version, and the property owners have their version. So that’s not a solution that’s available to us today, could be in the future.” 

Arias informed the applicants Tuesday of his intention to bring forward a recommendation that modifies their proposal significantly.

“They were not happy,” he said. “They prefer to stick to their original proposal” for 92.5 acres. 

 “The community has taken the position, ‘we want you to reject the applicants’ proposal, and we want you to allow us to continue developing our proposal with the administration.’ My recommendation does not eliminate that.”

Arias says he has presented his plan to his colleagues, the mayor’s office, the city’s planning department, the community he represents as well as the rezone applicants.  

He does not know if the other six council members would support his plan, but he insists there’s no way out of the present situation. The two sides are still as far as they were – the quagmire that has existed since early 2021, when the group of landowners and businesses 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, stated in an email to Fresnoland  Wednesday that “disapproval of the rezone would make it far more difficult for my clients to receive the financing and other investment they need to upgrade to electric infrastructure and other clean technologies.”

In a letter signed by Mary Curry, Dr. Venise Curry, Debbie Darden, Pastor B.T. Lewis II, and Robert ‘Bob’ Mitchell – leaders of the southwest Fresno community, they argue that while they “fully understand the importance of a sound and vibrant economy for the city of Fresno and southwest Fresno,” the rezone sought by the business owners and developers “will forgo the Southwest Fresno Specific plan’s ability to continue to hold industrial development accountable.” 

Their letter added that “to change zoning to Light and future Heavy Industrial zoning opens this area of Southwest Fresno back up to the perpetual racist ‘dumping’ of high polluting industry on a community that is predominantly made up of citizens of color.”

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) agrees with the southwest Fresno residents, stating that it opposes the rezone application “because it risks significant health impacts to the southwest Fresno community that is already overburdened by air pollution.”

Additionally, the CARB letter stated, the rezone “disregards the community’s explicit vision for their neighborhood as expressed in the SWFSP, which they spent years developing with the City.”

State Attorney General Rob Bonta urged city council members to reject the rezone application. In a news release on Wednesday, Bonta described Southwest Fresno as “one of the most pollution-burdened communities in the state. The community next to the project is over 95% non-white, experiencing extremely high rates of poverty and unemployment, and facing serious shortages of affordable housing.”

He cited the community’s health concerns –  “some of the highest asthma, low birth weight, and cardiovascular disease levels in the state” and the location of the disputed lands, “next to sensitive sites, including two schools and an office administering the state’s supplemental nutrition program for women and children.”

What the Attorney General also pointed out is that supporting the rezone would be a statement by the city that it was reneging on the commitment it made to the Southwest Fresno communities in 2017 when it “developed and approved the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan to combat and reverse the historical inequities and underinvestment in Southwest Fresno due to policies — including redlining —that led to industrial uses being clustered near these low-income communities.”

Arias said he knows this is a really tough situation and that the community is very protective of their specific plan. 

“So they spend a lot of time on it, very thoughtful. I fully acknowledge their commitment to it,” he said. “But I have a responsibility to move items forward.”

He said his proposal would reduce pollution, traffic, truck traffic and vehicle traffic over time, while transitioning these essential industries into electrification at a faster rate, as mandated by the state. 

“And it will also protect West Fresno,” he said, “from continuing to carry the heavy burdens it has carried. That’s the best I can do.”

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Dr. Dympna Ugwu-Oju is the senior editor for Fresnoland.

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