What's at stake?
The city of Fresno is considering annexing the Fresno County island of Calwa. Community members have questions about the city's motives and are concerned the about more industrial development in their pollution-burdened neighborhood.
Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer apologized to leaders of the unincorporated community of Calwa for miscommunications around proposed annexation.
“I apologize…if it caught you guys off guard,” Dyer said. “That was not my intent.”
The apology was delivered on Tuesday night during a Calwa Recreation and Park District board of directors meeting. Dyer attended the meeting to clarify confusion about his annexation proposal. Founded in 1955, the Calwa Recreation and Parks District is in charge of managing Calwa Park.
The idea that Fresno would bring a portion of the county island of Calwa into the southeast part of the city surfaced in July during negotiations around the renewal of Measure C, a half-cent Fresno County sales tax that funds new roads, freeways, sidewalks, trails and public transportation in the county.
During Measure C negotiations, Dyer proposed annexing a 119-acre, largely resident portion of Calwa to offset the deficit Fresno County would see under the city’s proposed Measure C spending plan.
City officials say the part of Calwa under consideration for annexation runs from Church Avenue on the north to Jensen Avenue on the south; Cedar Avenue on the east to Orange Avenue to the west; plus the area south of Church Avenue and east of Orange Avenue.
Since then, the park district and Calwa-serving community groups have been searching for clarity on how annexation could affect residents as well as the park.
Laura Moreno, executive director of the Friends of Calwa nonprofit, criticized the way the community was left out of initial discussions around annexation following the July debate.
The Calwa Recreation and Park District board members shared in the confusion.
District Counsel Hilda Cantú Montoy, who provides legal guidance to the board, said she found out about the proposed annexation when Dyer mentioned the idea during his July 13 news conference to announce a Calwa Park mural funded by his One Fresno Foundation.
“As you know,” Cantú Montoy said addressing Dyer, “elected officials and governing boards do not like to hear things in the media first; they like to know what is going on before it’s in the media.”
“They (the Calwa Park District board members) felt like, ‘what is going on? Why is the mayor coming in, having a press conference in our backyard to annex us?’
“That’s the impression that was given,” she said.
Adam Ramos, district administrator for the Calwa Recreation and Parks district, said in a statement to The Bee on Thursday, that while it was a “pleasure” to have the mayor at the board meeting, the board isn’t ready to enter any agreements with the city at this time.
“We want to be clear,” Ramos said, “changes to this park will not happen unless approved by the board of directors and the people of Calwa.”
‘Mayor, why would we do this?’
Dyer said he realizes not everyone is on the same page – even among his staff.
During the meeting, the mayor said he has already met with the Fresno city department heads – police, fire, public works, utilities, parks – to discuss the “crazy idea” of annexation. He acknowledged the annexation would have a “negative financial impact” on the city of Fresno.
“One of the questions asked to me was, ‘And, Mayor, why would we do this?’”
Dyer said he responded that annexation was “the right thing” to do and that it could help improve sidewalks, make the neighborhood safer for kids, as well as improve lighting and amenities at the park in Calwa.
Regarding concerns that the city was annexing Calwa for industrial development, Dyer insisted that was not his motive.
“My motives as a mayor are pure,” he said.
“I don’t know that we even want to annex the industrial area into the city,” he said, adding that he’s more interested in annexing the residential area. He, however, acknowledged that the city might annex industrial areas, “I’m not saying it couldn’t happen.”
Councilmember Luis Chavez’s office to survey community in November
If Calwa annexation progresses, the process would take around two years, Dyer said. “All of this is really exploratory.”
While it’s not immediately clear how close the city is to annexing Calwa, community groups are working to educate and prepare residents.
In a meeting last month, nonprofit organizations, Friends of Calwa and Fresno Building Healthy Communities, answered residents’ questions on how annexation might impact them – whether their taxes would increase and whether they’d have access to more services.
According to the Fresno County Local Agency Formation Commission, the agency that oversees the creation of new local government agencies in Fresno County, a city’s annexation of a county island results in “a more efficient urban service delivery system” in sewer, water, trash, police, fire protection, groundwater recharge, and code enforcement services.
Ultimately, Fresno city leaders say they will respect whatever decision the Calwa community wants.
“My position is that the city should only annex county islands in which the process is initiated by the residents that actually live there,” said Councilmember Luis Chavez, whose District 5 surrounds Calwa, in a statement to The Bee on Thursday. “My commitment to the community of Calwa is to respect the people’s will.”
Dyer echoed this sentiment.
“We’re not coming in forcing anything,” he said. “If there’s no desire, then we simply walk away.”
As for the process, according to LAFCo, city staff will hold a neighborhood meeting to discuss the annexation proposal. Then, the city council has to approve a resolution to apply for annexation, which would trigger a formal process.
LAFCo will hold a mandatory public hearing prior to making a recommendation on the proposed annexation. However, residents can reject annexation through a formal “protest” process. If the protest is large enough – defined as 25% to 50% of registered voters who submit “written protests” if land is inhabited, or more than 25% of landowners who own at least 25% of the assessed land value – it could trigger a formal vote where voters in the area decide on annexation.
In the meantime, Chavez said his office will start a door-to-door community survey in November to hear directly from Calwa residents.