Why it matters?
As Clovis moves to expand its sphere of influence northeast of the city, the development could bring thousands of much-needed homes to the area. But with the homes will come an increased demand on city services, water and infrastructure, which residents are rightfully concerned about.
And with no mention of affordable housing or multi-family units being developed in the area, residents of the broader central San Joaquin Valley and state could have more concerns about the way in which the land is being developed. Future decisions on the land will come before the council and planning commission prior to moving forward, which allows the public more opportunities to comment on plans for the area.
Here’s what you need to know
- The Clovis City Council met on Nov. 14 and after a long and contentious discussion, with several members of the public objecting, the council unanimously approved two items regarding development of 923 acres of property located north of Shepherd Avenue between Sunnyside and North Carson Avenues (Big Dry Creek Dam). The council approved a request from Wilson Homes to move forward with a concurrent environmental impact review and municipal service review, which is required for the land to be incorporated into the city’s sphere of influence for development. Development of this land was stalled in 2021 after a threatened salamander habitat was identified.
- Members of the public appeared before the council to comment about speeding drivers and lack of enforcement of traffic safety laws.
- The council approved a $2 million budget increase for Landmark Square, site of the new senior center, transit hub, and library.
- What is the status of the threatened tiger salamander habitat? Will it be affected by the proposed 923-acre development?
- Were residents living near the proposed development given adequate notice of the public hearing?
- When Brough expressed concerns about traffic safety, why did none of the council members mention the lack of traffic officers in the police department?
Jose Flores, Mayor
Drew Bessinger, Councilmember
Lynne Ashbeck, Mayor Pro Tem
Bob Whalen, Councilmember
Vong Mouanoutoua, Councilmember
John Holt, City Manager
Scott Cross, City Attorney
Karey Cha, City Clerk (ABSENT)
Rebecca Simonian, Executive Assistant (substituting for Cha)
Andy Haussler, Assistant City Manager
Mayor Pro Tem Ashbeck called the meeting to order about 6:03 p.m., mentioning that Mayor Flores was running late. “I’m the pinch-hitter,” she said. She was glad, she said, that a number of attendees were there in council chambers in person and acknowledged those online via YouTube and Webex as well. The difference between her style of opening the meeting and Mayor Flores’ was striking: she was conversational whereas Flores typically reads the agenda. Ashbeck went on, encouraging public participation: if you want to comment by phone, call and you’ll be placed in a queue to comment.
Ashbeck then asked Councilmember Whalen to lead the flag salute. Whalen said, “Join me in saluting our flag and our republic.” Clerk Cha was absent, and Executive Assistant Rebecca Simonian substituted for her.
Assistant City Manager Haussler called roll, and by that time Flores had arrived but when his name was called he replied “not here,” then added “,I’m finally here.” The meeting lasted over three hours and was notable for its lengthy discussion about a proposed housing development, in which some council members revealed their antipathy toward affordable housing. The meeting took place in the council chamber at the Clovis Civic Center and was live-streamed. Agendas, video, and minutes from past meetings can be found here.
Public Comments regarding items not on the agenda. Flores introduced this item with help from Ashbeck as he was getting settled in his chair. Four people were present to make comments. The first was Norman Morrison, who complained about what he called unfilled promises, such as installation of a traffic light in his neighborhood. He also complained about drivers who drive with impunity at high rates of speed. He and family have “almost been hit” by drivers six times. Drivers routinely cross double yellow lines. “You guys have done nothing” to fix traffic problems, he said. The city “lets developers run wild,” Morrison said. Whalen asked for Morrison’s address and City Manager Holt asked City Planner Renee Mathis to contact Morrison and mentioned that she could speak with him in the lobby.
Next Charles Brough of Clovis spoke about the need for repainting crosswalks near the Gettysburg School. He had appeared before the council on Oct. 17 about the same subject. He commended the council and city staff for repainting it, but he said that problems with poor visibility of signage remained. He also advocated for enforcement of speed laws and said he had “almost been killed” three times while in the crosswalk, but he didn’t say if that was before or after the recent repainting.
Brough said that crossing guards tell him they have also almost been hit. “I never see an officer out there,” said Brough. The street is a “raceway,” he said. None of the council members or staff mentioned the lack of traffic officers in the police department. Police Chief Fleming, in his status report to the council last year, said that there are only two officers assigned to traffic duty for the entire city, and the job of one of them is mostly administrative. “I don’t want to be killed out there,” said Brough.
Brough brought maps and shared copies with council members and staff. He suggested that the speed limit should be 25 miles per hour in all school zones. Flores said he would have Scott Redelfs, public utilities director, call him. Brough said he had a phone message from him three weeks ago; Brough returned the call but has not heard back. Brough then repeated what he had said on Oct. 17, that the crosswalk repainting schedule should not be restricted to the month of June, because the paint dries in two hours and it takes little time for a work crew to do it. “We’ll get it done,” said Flores. Ashbeck commented to Holt that the matter should be on the agenda for the subcommittee which meets with the school board, as traffic is a subject they regularly address. Finally, Brough suggested the council and staff “talk to the chief of police,” but again no one mentioned the shortage of officers.
Next Paul Pierce spoke, complaining about the traffic near Fowler and Teague. When he had an accident, he called 911 but his request for help was declined. Flores asked if Pierce had called the California Highway Patrol. Then he said “the Clovis PD would have been there.” Pierce’s address is in a “county island” and the implication was that services to county residents with a Clovis address are questionable, but no one clarified the issue. Pierce also used the word “raceway” to describe the speeding drivers in his neighborhood. “Traffic is ridiculous” and there are “no police out there,” he said. Clovis is growing, he said, but are there enough police to manage crimes such as speeding? “Let’s get some police out there” before you try to grow any more, he said, perhaps unwittingly echoing some of this year’s conclusions of the Citizens Advisory Board on police matters. However, once again, no one mentioned the shortage of police officers.
Next Rich Meisner appeared on behalf of St. Martha’s Pantry, a Clovis food pantry serving about 350 families and which has been housed in the Our Lady of Perpetual Help church. Meisner confirmed that the local Catholic church leadership had decided to move the food pantry “downtown,” meaning downtown Fresno. Bessinger asked how often the pantry is open and mentioned that his mother-in-law volunteered there. Ashbeck asked what might have influenced the decision to move—was it staffing, donations? Meisner said that the local Catholic parish leaders moved the pantry because they felt there was not enough “vetting” of people who were receiving the food, implying that some could have been taking food they didn’t need. Ashbeck said that “taking these services out of Clovis is not good.” She added that she was “sure there were some who take advantage, but Clovis has people who need food.” Was there another charity aside from the Salvation Army providing food to the needy? Holt said that there were “a few churches.” Meisner said that Clovis residents were being re-directed to the Salvation Army. He suggested that a letter from the council in support of St Martha’s Pantry “would help” but he didn’t specify what it would help with or to whom it would be addressed. Meisner said that per the new California law requiring businesses to donate unsold food meant that they would need a place to donate it, seeming to suggest that the loss of the food pantry in Clovis could create a problem.
Consent Calendar: Agenda Items #1-13 This group of routine items, approved 5-0, required a single vote. Whalen recused himself from item #10, (acceptance of final map for Gleneagles Homes and Gary McDonald Homes tract 63482, at northeast corner of West Nees and North Timmy Avenues).
Agenda Item #14 The council unanimously confirmed the city manager’s appointment of Chad McCollum as Economic Development, Housing and Communications Director effective Nov. 16. McCollum was the public affairs manager for the city since 2019.
Holt said that McCollum was a “key player in navigating the city through the pandemic,” though he did not say how or what McCollum’s duties were in this area. McCollum and his family were present, whom he introduced; his teenaged daughter was on her way to the Veterans’ Memorial District to accept an award for an essay on patriotism, and his 10-year-old son was just accepted to a basketball team, he boasted. He said he wanted his kids to see “the public square” and that he was “humbled” and “excited” about the new job.
Ashbeck said, “This is your last chance to go back to TV news—just kidding.” McCollum, before joining the City of Clovis staff, was a news director for a local TV station. Whalen said he was “really impressed” with McCollum’s work but asked why he could go from communicating routine public affairs to a specialized area like housing. McCollum said he “communicates” about affordable housing programs; hence he’s qualified, but the details and duties of his new position were not discussed. Then he said there was “an opportunity for synergy” among the three areas which he’ll be covering.
McCollum, in reply to a question from Ashbeck—what about hiring a “true PIO [public information officer]—said that “in a perfect world” he’d replace himself with one, but added that “we’ve become nimble with social media” and talked about what he regarded as a successful experience of distributing public information. Ashbeck said, “You’ve raised the level of the work.”
Flores remarked that he had “a lot of friends who are real-estate agents, and they can communicate.” Then he said that “we need someone who sings the praises of Clovis.”
McCollum was applauded and Ashbeck gave him a standing ovation.
Agenda Item #15 Holt said that the scheduled Nov. 21 meeting would be canceled.
Agenda Item #16 After a long and contentious discussion, with several members of the public objecting, the council unanimously approved two items regarding development of 923 acres of property located north of Shepherd Avenue between Sunnyside and North Carson Avenues (Big Dry Creek Dam). The first was a request authorizing Holt to execute a agreement between the city and consultant De Novo Planning Group for the preparation of an Environmental Impact Report (EIR); the second was a request to allow for application to the Fresno County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) to amend the city’s “sphere of influence” to include the 923 acres in question.
Renee Mathis introduced a new senior planner on her staff, McKenzie Perez, who summarized the project and the agenda item, the subject of which has been years in the planning (since 2016) and most recently came before the council in March 2021. The item was back to address “a few issues.” In 2021, the acreage was reduced from 1,050 to 155, (per agenda) “due to the identification of environmental constraints, in the area east of Fowler, that would have forced a delay to the overall project.”
In October-November 2021, the real-estate developer, Wilson Homes, who is trying to develop the land in question, reduced its requested number of acres (to 155) which they wanted the city to adopt into its statement of interest (SOI) to avoid a lengthy and time-consuming process of managing attempts to develop housing there. The reason for the reduction was that the developer found that the area in question was habitat for the tiger salamander, a species which is threatened in the Central Valley and endangered in other areas of California.
In March 2022, discussions began, said Perez, for an SOI for an additional 923 acres. An environmental impact review (EIR) will begin for the 923-acre project based on that done for the 155-acre parcel. The EIR will entail studies of traffic, noise, air quality; other studies will analyze water and sewer. Staff is requesting approval to submit an application to LAFCo for the SOI, which will allow the municipal service review (MSR) to be done concurrently with the EIR. Perez pointed out that the LAFCo application would not be complete until the EIR is certified and the MSR has been completed.
Perez said the notices of this day’s council meeting had been mailed to residents of the neighboring areas but that only a few responses had been received.
There was no mention in city staff’s presentation of the tiger salamander; the documents in the agenda packet referred only to “environmental constraints” which hindered the full project from going forward. It was unclear whether the issue had been addressed or if the proposed EIR would.
“Next steps” per Perez were execution of consultant agreement with De Novo, prepare master development plan for the area, prepare LAFCo application, prepare EIR, create “opportunities for public input.”
Council members had questions: Mouanoutoua mentioned the tiger salamander habitat. Has this been addressed, he wanted to know. Perez said that “a report” would be included. Was staff confident in the applicant’s opinions about it? Perez said they would review “mitigation” suggestions. “Last time, staff was pretty involved,” said Mouanoutoua, “so why aren’t you involved now?” Mathis replied that staff had not yet received the report but that if any additional steps are required, they will be addressed. The current purpose was to “move forward.” The question of whether the issue had been properly addressed remained and gave the appearance that it was being avoided.
Mouanoutoua then asked if larger infrastructure analyses could be undertaken at the same time as this project’s sewer and water studies were being done. Mathis said that the studies were specific to the project only. Holt said, “That type of analysis [updating sewer and water master plans] would be done on the General Plan update.” Mouanoutoua appeared slow to comprehend: “So this study would be only for the 923 acres?” Mathis repeated that the study would focus on the project’s specific area. Mouanoutoua pressed the matter: “I just feel like it’s a good time to study it, to throw it in.” Mathis said that she could speak to the city engineer but that anything outside the scope of the project is a cost to be borne by the city.
Bessinger, seeming to agree with Mouanoutoua, said that he hated to see a missed opportunity and that looking at sewer-water along with this project would “save tearing up roads.” He then asked if all residents within the area marked on a map shown had been notified of the meeting. Few comments had been received.
Ashbeck asked, given the earlier public comments about traffic, was the scope of the traffic study sufficient? Perez said that a De Novo consultant would meet with traffic consultants. Ashbeck asked if the study needed to be bigger; she was concerned about the impact of the proposed development on the larger community. Then she said, as she had been looking at her phone, that she was “not shopping,” she had been researching the scope of the EIR. She asked if the EIR included public safety, including fire and police services. Perez said yes.
Whalen said that what is being requested was approved in March of 2021. His “concern” was that development in Clovis be done in “an orderly fashion.” This was an opportunity to be “aggressive” in development. He meandered a little in his speech, but he said that in the past large landowners had sold property for development at high prices, not “economical” for the city. He then said he was “challenged” by the idea of the EIR and MSR being concurrent, because the EIR would help with community outreach.
Discussion of concurrent EIR/MSR ensued. Whalen asked if they are always concurrent. Holt said that the purpose of the EIR was to enable the city to work with LAFCo; the EIR can run concurrently with the MSR but it doesn’t have to. Perez said that the SOI amendment triggers the MSR. Mathis said the point for concurrent running of the studies was efficiency,
Whalen then said that “governments are not designed to be efficient but should allow for people to give input on decisions” which he suggested was something being “given up” for efficiency.
Ashbeck said that the studies being done at the same time doesn’t preclude a problem that will make it not happen.
Flores said that there was “plenty of opportunity” for the public to comment, seeming to waive off the issue. Then he addressed the earlier commenter’s remark about “unfilled promises” and said that if the person making the complaint lived in an area which was not annexed, the City of Clovis could not be responsible for fixing it, a statement which raised questions about services and rights for residents of “county islands” and “sphere of influence” areas.
Public comment was opened on the item.
First to speak was Jeffrey Harris of Wilson Homes. He spoke in a familiar manner to council members and said “this matter has already been before you.” He said that the area was not in the city’s sphere of influence. Clovis “has to expand its sphere” with LAFCo, he said, and “we recommend you initiate the process to expand the sphere.” He summarized the history of the planned development. Then he said that “the public needs to understand ‘sphere’ and ‘annexation’.” Wilson Homes was not seeking additional sewer studies, he noted. He talked about money already invested in the project. To Whalen, he said that doing the EIR and the MSR at the same time will “provide insight useful to both.”
Mouanoutoua asked Harris, “Can you speak to the tiger salamander issue?” Harris said that there are “documented finds” of the salamander, and that was a “setback” which caused the “narrowing” of the project. “We talked to consultants,” he said, about what to do if there is a “presence.” Harris said they would “work with agencies to mitigate,” but he gave no details. “Wilson Homes has not had to deal with this before.” He added that “we are confident we will be able to move forward as the EIR identifies the scope of the problem.”
Mouanoutoua said that if found within a prescribed radius (he called it a “circle of death”), would it decrease the area of development? Harris replied that “we are assuming the presence of tiger salamanders; it’s a waste of time to fight with federal and state agencies.”
Whalen said Harris’ comments about concurrent studies were “persuasive.” Harris joked that he wouldn’t want to be a defendant in front of “Judge Whalen” (Whalen is a judge-elect of the Fresno County Superior Court; he assumes office in January 2023).
Other staff people from Wilson Homes were present but did not speak.
A young man who said his name was “Tro” (“short for ‘trouble’,” he said) spoke next. He said that he spoke on behalf of his neighbors against the proposed development. He mentioned that he was opposed to an elementary school which would be built in the back of his house, to which Flores replied that concern should be directed to the Clovis Unified School District, not the council.
Norman Morrison spoke again. He lived in the area in question and complained about not being given sufficient notice of the meeting. He talked about the “Nextdoor” social-media platform and said that people were expressing opposition to the project there and asking why they were not given notice about it. “Why do we need this project?” he asked. He said that the Wilson rep (Harris) “tacitly admitted” that the project is going forward. Was there even water to supply a project of this size? Addressing Whalen about the concurrent EIR and MSR, he said, “I almost called you ‘your honor.’” Ashbeck was heard to say, “Please don’t.” Flores repeated what he said earlier about not keeping promises within areas considered within the city’s “sphere of influence.” He said until the EIR is done, a given area wouldn’t be within the “sphere of influence.” Morrison said he had no faith in EIRs for traffic.
Lloyd Buckner spoke next. He said he was a former transportation planning engineer in Madera County. He said that CalTrans will have to play a major role in the proposed project, and adding 10,000 people to the area will mean that transportation needs to be studied, not just water and sewer.
Nathaniel Weibert was next. He said that “growth is inevitable” but that water was an “endangered species.” He had spoken with County Supervisor Magsig. He wanted to know if being in the sphere of influence or annexed meant getting city water. Flores said that city water would be “closer” to residents. Then he boasted that Clovis “manages water better than most cities” and that “we’ve made great deals with water dealers.” However, Clovis water would go only to “portions” of the proposed development. Pipes would go to the street, but “you’d have to pay to connect to your house.” But “it can’t happen without annexation,” Flores added. It wasn’t clear if he meant that annexation would get city water to the house or just to the curb.
Holt clarified that “sphere of influence” doesn’t require the city to provide services, but annexation does.
Flores then began talking about reclaimed water and “purple pipes” and complained that the “government” doesn’t let you drink reclaimed water but “it’s so clean, you can drink it.” Weibert argued that the council’s power was “greater than ours” by way of asking them to advocate for services.
Another commenter, Arakel Arisian, said he was from the Heritage Development Company. He said it was “very important” that there is capacity to develop “Heritage Grove,” another housing development, which he said he was “working diligently” on.
Paul Pierce returned to complain about traffic again on county roads, but he said, “You’re not gonna care because it’s county.” Flores insisted that “we care” and “we try to be good neighbors” to residents of county islands. The heated edge in his voice was gone. “Your comments mean so much to us,” Flores added. He said that “if we don’t get projects like this, we can never fix the problems,” but he didn’t explain why.
In reply to Pierce, Bessinger said they couldn’t tell people what roads to drive on.
Next, a man who gave his name as Jim quoted Ashbeck who earlier said “the city makes money by development.” Both the developer and the city are advocating for this project to happen, Jim said. “It doesn’t help to get notice of the meeting one day before,” he said, something others expressed frustration about. Then he said there was a “mandate from the state” to build houses. Flores interjected that the mandate was for high-density—a specific number of houses per acre. This project, however, was not a high-density project, so it was unclear what point Flores was trying to make.
Jim said he was “not in favor at all” of the project and repeated the phrase “David and Goliath” several times. He pointed out that the residents of the area don’t vote for the Clovis City Council. Whalen called him a “cynic.” Ashbeck said that her remark about the city making money was “not the most articulate” statement and apologized for what she called a “flippant” remark; “cities don’t make money doing anything.” Property taxes don’t pay for housing. She added, “We are not advocating for this at all.”
Whalen said that property taxes may go up, but so do costs. Then he apologized that the meeting notification was not timely.
Craig Howard spoke next. He asked the council to postpone decisions because the notification was inadequate. He said that he canceled a business trip to attend the meeting. He didn’t know what was happening with the tiger salamander, and why were you in such a hurry when you don’t know how residents feel?
Mouanoutoua asked if notifying residents was subject to the same requirement of posting meeting agendas 48 hours in advance.
Mouanoutoua then talked about the state’s housing requirements, but he conflated the development under discussion with affordable housing. He said that just by increasing the sphere of influence, 10,000 houses could be easily built. He said, “Governor Newsom called us out, so this is the way to go.” He said that Wilson Homes “has been a working partner with the council,” and “we appreciate you being involved.”
Bessinger said that the proposed development is not within the regional housing needs overlay, “so neighbors won’t have to worry about high density,” clearly framing affordable housing as something to “worry” about.
Whalen, trying to clarify the confusion between affordable housing and luxury developments such as the one under discussion, said that the state is pressing for more housing and that “this adds fuel to Governor Newsom’s fire.” But it became clear that the discussion, at least for the council, was centered on resistance to building affordable housing. Whalen said that “in the eyes of Governor Newsom, not all housing is created equal.” Newsom is for affordable housing, said Whalen. Whalen added that “even” Heritage Grove and Loma Vista were subject to some mandates which could include affordable housing. “There is hardly any place where you can feel secure that there won’t be affordable housing,” concluded Whalen in a weary tone. None of the members of the public commenting on the item had mentioned affordable housing, and no one mentioned the current critical housing shortage.
Flores made some scattered remarks. He said that Clovis had a unique problem: everyone wants to move here. So “as we grow in Clovis, it’s done in a smart way. We don’t want to alienate our neighbors.”
Ashbeck said she was “incredibly frustrated” that residents received notice of the meeting so late. That was “not OK in a world of social media when you can show what you had for lunch in 13 seconds.” She was tempted to vote against the item because of the late notification.
The vote was 5-0 for approval of both components of the item.
Bessinger asked Perez if this was her first presentation. She said she had made many for Fresno but that this was the first for Clovis. “You like us better, right?” said Ashbeck.
Agenda Item #17 The council with a 4-0 vote and 1 recusal (Flores) approved an updated budget for Landmark Square, which includes the new senior center, transportation hub, and library. Renee Mathis gave a presentation and summary of the project’s progress. Mathis explained that $2 million needed to be added to the budget.
The city was waiting to hear back from the Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) about a final determination of the contaminated soil on the site of the new library. Library construction will begin within a year of completion of the senior center and the transportation hub in spring 2023.
Mathis said the reply from the DTSC was slow in coming but that they expected to hear soon. Bessinger asked if state reps Borgeas or Patterson should pressure the agency to respond. Mathis said maybe, if there is no answer by mid-December.
Mouanoutoua said, regarding the increased budget, that he “didn’t like it when government keeps increasing [budgets].” Then he wanted to know if the money was coming from the general fund and if it was being taken from some other program. He was told that the details were in the documents distributed. Holt said that there is adequate funding and there will simply be a lower balance. Mouanoutoua persisted in his questioning: was the money being taken away from seniors? Holt repeated his answer. Now Mouanoutoua wanted to know: was $2 million enough? Mathis said she was “as confident as we can be” that this should be enough. But Mouanoutoua wanted to know “if they come for more, is there enough?” Then he said he had a question for Attorney Cross; he began to say that the agenda item as it was worded “caused the public no worry” but the dollar amount is not mentioned. He appeared to be thinking out loud. The dollar amount should be in the agenda item, but maybe that’s “too” transparent. However, Mouanoutoua didn’t wait for Cross to reply and instead asked the other council members what they thought. Their mics were off, so replies were inaudible.
Regarding the cost of the project, Ashbeck said, “There’s no turning back at this moment.”
Agenda Item #18 The council voted 5-0 to amend the municipal code to adopt updated California building codes.
Agenda Item #19 The council voted 5-0 to amend the municipal code to adopt updated California fire codes.
City Manager Comments Holt had none.
Mouanoutoua attended a Veterans’ Day parade and dinner with Bessinger. He also attended a ribbon-cutting for Second Chance Thrift store in Clovis, run by a couple who manage a group of halfway houses.
Whalen’s mic was off, so his comments were unintelligible, but the phrase “Plato’s Republic” was heard, as well as some awe-struck reactions from other council members.
Flores was heard to say “ . . . one of the fathers of Western civilization.”
Bessinger had no comment.
Ashbeck mentioned the need to send meeting notifications so they reached recipients ten days before a meeting and reiterated the need to review fees more often than every 20 years.
Flores congratulated Bessinger on winning re-election on Nov 8. “I hear there were some write-ins with my name,” he noted. “Mickey Mouse and me.” There was some cross-talk about election turnout. Someone said the total statewide was 36%, but no source was cited.
Holt said that the 30% of the Clovis section of the ballot where voters could vote for up to three council candidates had only one candidate chosen. Flores was heard to say, “They don’t follow directions.” But in fact, voters didn’t have to choose three; they could choose one or two, or none if they preferred.
The council adjourned to closed session at 9:17 p.m. Attorney Cross said there would be no action to report.
The next meeting will be Dec. 5.
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