Voters in March will be asked to change Fresno County's charter in a battle over law enforcement elections with potential statewide implications. Credit: Heather Halsey Martinez / Fresnoland

What's at stake?

Six years ago, a southwest Fresno neighborhood made a complete move away from industrial zoning.

Now, in a continuation of last year, Fresno City Councilmember Miguel Arias is looking to walk back more parts of that groundbreaking achievement.

Support for a watershed agreement to stop industrial expansion in southwest Fresno is bleeding support at the Fresno City Council. 

Last Thursday, Fresno City Councilmember Miguel Arias asked city attorney Andrew Janz during a public workshop to find ways to backtrack on a key provision in one of Fresno’s biggest community achievements in decades: the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan

The plan cemented a new vision for southwest Fresno six years ago, by rezoning the area away from industrial to a healthier, less burdensome land use pattern. It grandfathered in current industrial businesses, provided they did not expand their operations.

But that vision is now under threat at the Fresno City Council.

Arias directed Janz on Thursday to find ways to undermine the Southwest Fresno plan by reverting 60 acres at the corner of Elm and Annadale Avenues from mixed-use zoning back to allowing industrial uses. The rezone would allow industrial businesses on the 60 acres to potentially expand their operations.

“I’d like to get a memo from your office on what options we have, which includes a consideration of a rezone application, a new rezone application, and the consideration of an [industrial] overlay,” Arias asked Janz.

Southwest Fresno residents were not invited to the council workshop, according to city manager Georgeanne White.

Arias’ potential industrial rezone is a half-mile from the Clinica Sierra Vista health clinic, senior citizen housing, the Mary Ella Brown Community Center, and two Washington Union Schools.

Some of the tenants at the site include Mid Valley Disposal, Glaxosmithkline, a pharmaceutical company; Newstar Packaging and Logistics; and, Plastic Industries, Inc., a plastics manufacturing company.

A year ago, Arias made headlines when the council rezoned, amid widespread community opposition, 32 acres of land in the neighborhood back to industrial. Despite the move being called “likely unlawful” by the state Attorney General Rob Bonta, the rezone was met with no legal opposition. 

His move on Thursday opens the door to a rezone twice as big as last year’s.

In support of Arias’ latest request, councilmember Luis Chavez said the Southwest Specific Plan should have never rezoned the industrial parcels in the first place.

“I am of the position that that should have never been rezoned to neighborhood mixed use,” Chavez said, citing multiple industrial facilities in the neighborhood. 

“It should have stayed the way it was, the way it has been for a number of years.”

Another 60 acres

After last year’s rezone, Arias put another 60 acres to be renegotiated between industrial operators and southwest Fresno community residents. An update on how these negotiations panned out was what the council discussed on Thursday. 

Arias hoped the industrial operators would reach a breakthrough with residents and agree to a compromise in a deal called an industrial overlay, he said on Thursday. 

The overlay would allow industrial operators on the 60 acres to continue in perpetuity and potentially expand. In return, the industrial operators, according to their slideshow, offered to use “enhanced landscaping” practices at their facilities and not drive their trucks around schools and homes.

These industrial operators include Mid Valley Disposal, Madera developers Peter Stravinski and Tim Mitchell, and Sacramento developer Larry Allbaugh.

But John Kinsey, an attorney representing these developers, said they had been unsuccessful over the last year at trying to convince Southwest Fresno residents on their conditions for the overlay.

Kinsey said the industrial operators tried to reach a compromise with residents by offering mitigation measures on their “limited” expansions, such as publishing a list of toxic chemicals they are releasing into Southwest Fresno. 

Dr. Venise Curry, the lone Southwest Fresno resident at the meeting who was a key specific plan negotiator, said that the industrial operator’s overlay proposal was ultimately unacceptable to the community. 

“As a community we have worked diligently on an overlay, we have listened to input from those applicants, we have changed some of the language to accommodate what they said is important and a priority,” she said. 

“But understand that our core issue has to do with the life and well-being of our community. And whether or not that is a priority for this body, we are going to continue to uphold that as the core issue.”

With residents not on the same page as the industrial operators, Kinsey proposed to the council a more hardball tactic: a unilateral rezone, which doesn’t require agreement with residents.

“We are suggesting that one viable solution may be to bring this matter back for consideration by the Council for rezone back to light industrial,” Kinsey told the council.

Council says keeping industrial supports public health

In support of Kinsey’s rezone, the council alluded that the Southwest Specific Plan – by not allowing industrial expansion – was a threat to public health.

Without industrial expansion in southwest Fresno, council member Annalisa Perea argued, industrial operators can’t get the loans they need from banks to decarbonize their business, like making the switch to electric vehicles. 

“So in essence, [the] ‘no net increase’ language would essentially stop us from being able to meet a lot of our climate goals in terms of transitioning to an increase in electric vehicles,” she said. 

Without reverting back to industrial zoning, she concluded, the health of southwest Fresno residents would be harmed.

“In short, the conflict and zoning with neighborhood mixed use is going to potentially prohibit businesses down there from being able to clean and green their operations,” she said.

Perea has financial ties to the industrial operators who would benefit from a rezone. Her city council campaign last June received $16,600 from the developers in question, including $14,100 from the Stravinski family and $1,500 from Mid-Valley Disposal and its related entities, according to her campaign finance disclosure forms. 

Perea’s reasoning was not supported by an interview with a senior banker. 

The industrial operators’ current zoning situation will not affect their ability to get loans for cleaner technologies, said David Corona, vice president at Valley Business Bank.

“If I’m giving a loan to a tenant that’s buying electric vehicles or buying some new piece of equipment…if the building has a conditional use permit, I mean, honestly, the conditional use permit doesn’t come into play,” Corona said.

“Because for electric vehicles, we’re going to finance against the vehicle.”

Natalie Delgado, a policy advocate at Leadership Counsel, said the council’s line of reasoning on the issue “made no sense.”

“The Southwest Specific Plan paved the way for so many other neighborhood investments, including $70 million from the state,” Delgado said. “It’s a slap in the face to all the residents to say that those efforts weren’t enough, and actually need to be undone, to make their neighborhoods healthier and more livable.”

Money explains the council’s rezone

But a different money issue explains the city council’s pressure for the rezone.

The city’s multi-decade effort to turn southwest Fresno into a warehouse and industrial hub is undercut by the residents’ alternative vision — one with less pollution and more grocery stores. 

Before the residents’ monumental victory in 2017, the city of Fresno spent more than $100 million in the mid-2000s to subsidize more warehouse and industrial development in Southwest Fresno, according to Kinsey, the developers’ lawyer.

The Southwest Specific Plan’s complete move away from industrial zoning — and instead to mixed neighborhood use — is a threat to the land values of the city’s recently developed industrial parcels, Kinsey said.

The Specific Plan “undermines their [the industrial operators’] ability to sell the property because now they have an inconsistent use with the zoning. The property values plummet,” Kinsey said. 

According to Dennis Woods, chairman and president of United Security Bank, the neighborhood’s new zoning threatens the major bank’s land investments in southwest Fresno.

“If we lose the zoning and we lose the tenants, the [land] values will drop,” Woods told the council last year.

How to stop a community-led transition

Getting the rezone done would help preserve industrial land values in Southwest Fresno, Kinsey said, by allowing industrial land uses to stick around in Southwest Fresno for longer.

Otherwise, if a grandfathered business closes up shop, Kinsey said, the specific plan ends the property’s industrial use permit, “which is a problem.” 

However, Curry said making it more difficult to replace old industrial businesses with new ones is not a bug, but a feature of the resident’s specific plan. 

It’s the underlying logic of the plan, she said, whose major goal was to replace these businesses with housing, a community college, commercial and retail businesses, or park space.

“What is at stake in these rezones, partly, is that the council wants new industrial businesses to take their place. They don’t want to lose out on their ability to make this neighborhood their dumping ground for all things industrial,” she said.

Curry added that Southwest Fresno will not stop defending the plan’s central achievement: getting rid of industrial zoning in their neighborhood.

“There’s widespread opposition to this rezone, and there always has been,” she told Fresnoland.

Rezone on the horizon

But Arias, who requested the city’s legal team to consider the rezone, said the industrial rezone is in the community’s best interest. 

“When we have existing businesses that cannot borrow funds to make the transition to electrification or not meeting the goal of reducing pollution and the environmental impacts of that area…: [that] is not a viable option, ” Arias said. 

“[B]ecause that, as indicated by Dr. Curry, was never the intent of this specific plan to shut down businesses.”

Fresno planning director Jennifer Clark said there are many legal ways to get around the residents’ plan.

“Certainly, there are multiple viable options to move forward, whether it’s with an [industrial] overlay or with the reconsideration of the rezone,” she said. 

But Curry said that there are more pragmatic solutions to the points the council raised around cleaning up industrial businesses as soon as possible. 

She pointed to potential funding sources like the state’s flagship environmental protection program in South Central Fresno, AB617, which has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up industrial pollution in the area. 

“But the road to restoring the health of our community does not run through any rezones.”

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Gregory Weaver is a staff writer for Fresnoland who covers the environment, air quality, and development.

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  1. What would it take to develop industrial zones in Northeast and Northwest Fresno? Southwest Fresno has done its part with this issue. Time for OTHER parts of Fresno to do their share. If the city refuses to do this it raises the issues of: political power, race, and apathy.

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